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Archive for the ‘Teaching and Learning’ Category

14 Weeks of Love and Labour: Teaching Regency and Desert Romance to Undergraduate Students
by Karin Heiss

[End Page 1] In February 2012, after finishing my Magister thesis on the popular Regency romance and getting my degree,[1] I was offered the opportunity to become a doctoral candidate at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), along with the chance to start teaching English Literary and Cultural Studies at the Department of English and American Studies.[2] In addition to two first-year introductory modules on cultural studies, I had the opportunity to design and structure a fourteen-week seminar to be offered as an elective module[3] on (British) popular romance. While many seminars had included references to popular romantic structures and Christine Feehan’s The Scarletti Curse (2001) was analysed in a seminar titled “The Gothic Vision,” popular romance had not been the focus of a seminar in our Institute of English Studies before.

This article examines the proceedings of the seminar and the applied approach to teaching the popular romance in three distinct ways. First, it documents and reflects on the planning, structuring, and delivery of the module. Secondly, it considers the students’ development and progress and their response to the pedagogical measures. Lastly, it argues popular romance as a topic for academic study can appeal to both BA and teaching degree university students who study English in a German academic setting.[4] Popular genres in general (such as crime or detective, but also horror fiction—seminars on which generate a lot of student interest and participation in my experience) have a strong appeal as a subject, presumably since they connect directly to many students’ reading preferences and interests. Of course, there is also a case to be made for the idea that some of my students started to express during classes: that a seminar on popular culture initially often gives rise to the (very quickly corrected) notion that this topic would contain “less difficult and complex” texts to analyse, not involve much abstract theory, or require much personal effort. But this did not deter the participants from engaging in the texts and assignments. Thus, student interest can definitely be generated, even among those who picked popular literature as a topic because they assumed it would just be “easy.” Moreover, dealing with popular genres can motivate students by demonstrating that academic approaches are more than dry, abstract theories, but can and should inspire critical reflection on their own lives, how they conceive of the world, their own habits, contexts and reading practices. Finally, with regard to the academic setting, it will be shown that such a module can very well be integrated into courses which focus on the study of literature and culture in general, and can enliven academic discussion by shedding light onto genres which are underrepresented even in the study of popular culture.

The students were permitted to choose the elective class after having acquired knowledge of basic approaches to both literary and cultural “texts,”[5] leaving me with the task of recapping that knowledge and encouraging them to apply it to the study of popular romance novels and their structures. This seminar was designed to provide insight into the workings of specific popular romance subgenres, as well as to offer an overview of criticism levelled against the genre in general, and to enhance student’s abilities to analyse a popular cultural environment of production and consumption.

The seminar “Reading the Popular Romance” was thus one of a number of similarly structured elective seminars on various topics offered in the respective semester. Which of these seminars the students attended was up to their preference in topic and depended on how they managed their personal study schedule. For them, the module offered the chance to actively incorporate and apply the knowledge they gained in introductory and advanced seminars, which focus mainly on theoretical approaches and exemplary case studies. Thus, [End Page 2] working within the constraints of one genre and on selected texts with given literary and cultural studies approaches would help them to think critically and perform academic analyses both orally and in written form. In pursuit of their degree, the Proseminar is intended to be the next step in becoming proficient at producing coherent (close) readings and analyses of a text, followed by incorporating the analyses into a sound argumentative structure—first with the lecturer in class and then with a more narrow focus in their end-of-term-papers. Acquiring academic skills at this level also includes honing research abilities and being able to conform to the desired formalities both when preparing presentations and the end-of-term-paper, especially with regard to the bibliographical details. In order to facilitate this learning, I used a mixture of teaching approaches. Learning objective oriented measures, such as recaps on central approaches and summaries of the results of analyses, were central in relaying the necessary information to the students (Johansen 11-13). In addition, some elements of activity-oriented teaching (Johansen 89-91) were incorporated to enliven the teaching style and encourage student participation as well as increase interest. The most important measures in this respect were group work/working with a partner (Johansen 73) and interactive class discussions which were partly designed to help students with their soft skills, developing the capacity to work in a team and dealing with possibly conflicting opinions of others in an academically appropriate manner. However, these approaches were subject to revision throughout the duration of the seminar, since “no single strategy works for every teacher in every situation” (Daniel 91). The pedagogical aims in the first stages of planning and structuring the seminar were quite basic, since it is difficult to judge the exact possibilities of a class without getting to know the students and the dynamics among them first. The seminar structure was in itself very conducive to discussions and group work, as it let students develop trains of thought and arguments on their own, share them in a group of their peers, and then present them to other groups and the lecturer. Developing skills at both accepting but also formulating constructive criticism and delivering it to a fellow student were likewise part of the aims for this module. The “point of departure” for the students also varied, with some having read popular romances before, but not the specific subgenres we were to touch upon, while others’ experience of the genre was mostly limited to ideas from Hollywood cinema. Thus, bringing everyone onto a level that the class could start from was of utmost importance in the first weeks.

Concerning linguistic abilities, the seminar provides a stage for the students to practice speaking English freely in front of an audience (especially important for those doing a teaching degree) and bringing them closer to complete fluency in the English language. By the time they attended the Proseminar, the students also had undergone two language training courses with the university’s language department, in addition to at least five years of English in school. Therefore, the students’ language capabilities allowed for the seminar on popular romance to be held entirely in English. At times, though, especially in group discussions, it became apparent that their passive language skills and vocabulary were more developed than their active ones. Most prevalent were problems with grammar and tenses in spoken English. As a result, the class was comprised of a medium-level group of readers, speakers and writers, with exceptions on both ends of the spectrum. Some of the students also intended to go abroad at the end of their second year in order to perfect their language skills. [End Page 3]

Since the class was offered as part of the English Literary and Cultural Studies elective seminar for second to fourth year BA and teaching degree students, the syllabus material had to be limited to primary literature by British authors. Thanks to the work I had done in my Magister thesis, I was deemed capable of choosing the primary and secondary texts myself, running them by my supervisor for final approval. However, a US-American angle was included by providing an overview of the romance genre and its place in popular culture, as well as in the publishing industry and the importance of marketing and producing the book as an “object” in the UK and in the US. The idea of analysing the popular romance novel in its book form as an object was motivated by my background in the analysis of book markets and book production, acquired as a result of research conducted for a degree course called “Study of the Book” (Buchwissenschaften), also taught at FAU.

During the fourteen-week semester, with one ninety-minute unit per week at my disposal, the focus was on three primary texts which were analysed in depth, namely Georgette Heyer’s Bath Tangle (1955), E.M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919), and a more recent Mills & Boon category romance, Marguerite Kaye’s The Governess and the Sheikh (2011), which falls into both the Regency and desert subgenre. Special emphasis was put firstly on an introduction to the popular romance as a genre, as a mode, and a functioning cultural construct within an economic context. Secondly, we concentrated on the aspects of hierarchical difference presented in the texts, which were supposedly overcome by the end of the novel. One important objective was to foster students’ capacity to work actively on texts with theoretical concepts from postcolonial studies, gender studies, and media/film studies, and also to show them the breadth of possible fields of research to specialize in during their own studies and maybe even for their BA final papers.

Twenty students signed up for the class—nineteen female students and a “minority” of one male—a ratio that already hints at the very gendered perception of the genre, considering that I advertised the class under the heading of “Reading the Popular Romance.” This overall number of students is quite common for seminars, since they are designed for relatively small groups in order to allow for more intense discussion and a teaching style that also focuses on individual students and their performance. That the popular romance genre had not been on students’ radars as a viable area for academic interest emerged in the first session when I conducted a short oral survey of the reasons why they had selected this class and what expectations they had for it. It turned out that a few of the students were actually romance fans while others were either oblivious to the genre beyond the common stereotypes, or reluctant to admit that they had read popular romances before. Consequently, it became another goal of the seminar to show how current common stereotypes mostly still refer back to 1970s/80s feminist criticism of the genre. When I inquired as to why the students had actually chosen this particular class, the majority of them admitted that they had seen the title and had never encountered a seminar that dealt with popular romance before and were actually quite surprised it would be a topic that fourteen weeks could be devoted to in academia.

Of immediate concern to the students were, of course, the assessments. To successfully complete the seminar, they had to perform an in-class presentation which was mandatory in order to be admitted to the final assessment. The latter was in form of an end-of-term paper (10-12 pages, i.e. roughly 4,000 to 5,000 words) on a topic of interest pertaining to one or more appropriate texts and approaches we dealt with in class.[6] With [End Page 4] prior discussion and approval of the lecturer, it was also possible to work on a suitable text not discussed in class beforehand. All topics were primarily chosen and worded by the individual students themselves, thereby making them familiar with the thought processes that go into putting together and verbalizing a thesis on a specific topic as well as researching and describing it in a limited number of words. A further requirement was the weekly reading of required texts designated as essential for each session. In preparation for the assessment, individual meetings were offered and one week’s teaching unit focused entirely on the academic skills and research abilities needed to complete the task successfully. In the last session of the semester, the students were required to present their assessment topic of choice to the whole class and to elaborate on their approach to the assessment, getting feedback and constructive advice from both their colleagues and the lecturer.

Structurally, the lessons were divided up into a presentation (which was a collaborative effort of several students), a discussion about the required reading (with the lecturer adding information from various other texts), and finally the application of the approaches and ideas we had talked about to the primary text(s) in question. I probably should mention that, though I was talking about the “romance,” it was made clear from the outset that the findings of the seminar would only relate to the two specific subgenres we would analyse and sweeping generalizations were to be avoided. The overall structure of the fourteen-week seminar was as follows:

Week Topic
1 Introductory session
Why analyse popular romance? Introduction to romance in a pop cultural context. Introduction to critical voices concerning the romance.
2 Basic concepts in dealing with and approaches to romance/ Romance Defined
: Overview: The History of the Romance Genre
3 The framework of popular romance in the US and the UK: A look at the publishing industry
: Mills & Boon and Marketing
4 Academic Skills Session
5 Literary analysis & close reading: Bath Tangle (1955)
Presentation: The Regency as historical period

[End Page 5]

6 Gender and gender difference in Bath Tangle (1955)
Presentation: Gender and the popular romance
7 Representations of History in Bath Tangle (1955)
Presentation: History Inside and Out – Romance Book Covers and Contents and the Re-Presentation of History
8 Foundation of all desert romance: The Sheik (1919)
Presentation: Orientalism and the Popular Romance
9 Intersections of race/nationality and gender in The Sheik (1919)
Presentation: Self and Other: Constructions of Race and Nationality
10 A change in media: The Sheik (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino
Presentation: Introduction to (Silent) Film Studies
11 Combining desert and Regency romance: The Governess and the Sheikh (2011)
12 Changes in the popular romance from Hull to Heyer to Kaye
Presentation: Sexuality and Sexual Encounters in Modern Popular Romance
13 Results and Question session
14 Presentation of End-of-term paper topics

After the introductory session, we started out with the basics: general facts about the popular romance as a genre in terms of definition (Hollows 68-88; Engler 7-12), and in terms of approaches that had been used in order to analyse the romance to date. We then set out to have a look at the cultural framework of producing (publishing industry guidelines, marketing techniques, authors as figures of fame) and consuming the popular romance in a popular cultural context. Here, students were asked to participate and comment based on their own experience (also by making comparisons to other popular genres they knew). Having outlined the basic premises of the publication conventions and possibilities, the students again had a chance to contribute, this time via group activities. They had to select three romances at random out of a substantial number of recent and older ones I brought to class and identify what form of publication (single-title/category or formula) as well as sub-genre they belonged to and what the target audience could be, [End Page 6] judging from the cover, in-book ads, author presentation, and paratextual elements. This exercise drove home the possible distinctions to be made within a certain set of current romance publications. The students responded positively to the activity and made observant remarks about the romances they had chosen and how they thought the elements of marketing were incorporated in order to ensure high customer interest. The discussion soon turned to the question of whether the romance novel covers were actually designed to attract new consumers or whether they were more a “marker” of genre for an already existing readership. All groups had at least one older historical romance cover that featured the stereotypical bodice-ripping male protagonist and the heroine with excessively luxuriant hair. Most students commented that even if they were looking for a novel with a romance plot, the covers would quite possibly deter them from buying the book for fear of the reactions of the cashier and people who might observe them carrying or reading a book with such a cover. A discourse of negation and self-censorship became apparent in the groups of students (“I might actually buy the novel, the blurb sounds good but the cover is just too embarrassing.”). Public acquisition of texts which were openly advertised as having “explicit” sexual content and were aimed at women was obviously taken to signify affiliation of the consumer with the stereotype of the frustrated housewife/woman and thus with discontent about one’s position in life and with regard to relationships in particular. Consequently, even though we had discussed and dispelled this stereotype of the reader, it became obvious that it is so ingrained in cultural imaginations about the popular romance as to become almost unshakeable. Fixing images of excessive heterosexual interaction onto the cover and thus referencing both a female tradition of romance production and female pleasure in the consumption of (romantically motivated) sexual action indicates connections to possibly illicit, private reading practices that could be considered culturally transgressive and maybe even part of a taboo which surrounds female-centric depictions of sexual interaction. Of course, this interaction on the cover is entirely expressed in terms of exaggeration, hyperbole, hyper-femininity and -masculinity, clearly marking the representation as a construct, as “fiction,” thereby containing anxieties about active female desire, projecting the latter into the realm of fictionality.

Mixing up these historical romances with Mills & Boon Modern category and single-title romances, like J.D. Robb’s/Nora Roberts’s Naked in Death, made for an interesting discussion, since students thought that the crime and science fiction elements as well as the cover of Robb’s text were much closer to genres usually coded as masculine or connected to male traditions of writing. Throwing authors like P.D. James, who writes crime fiction, into the discussion made some of the students realize that if no full name with indication towards the sex of the author is given on the cover or in the paratexts, the genre and cultural practices associated with it are most often the origin of assumptions about gender identity and writing practice. Especially surprising was also the fact that students very quickly started to pick up on the (sexualized) codes of the cover tradition and its system of signification which had been shortly discussed the week before. This indicated an aptitude with visual signifiers that boded very well for the planned film analysis.

Part of assessing in-class participation was having the students give presentations on topics such as the historical development of the genre, marketing techniques, gendered and heterosexual discourses in the popular romance, and the depiction of sexuality and sexual interaction in the novels examined. When it came to literary analysis, we started out by going over the narrative basics and laid the groundwork for understanding the subgenre [End Page 7] specific plot motifs, settings, and the recurring set of stereotypical characters. Analysis was conducted mostly through close reading and was based strongly on Pamela Regis’s eight central plot points (Regis 30-38) as well as George Paizis’s work on characterization in his book Love and the Novel (10-26). Here, the notion of a text operating as a “closed system [that is] both an ideal world and an unreal world” (Paizis 99) as well as issues of power and quality of the characters were examined, establishing the different hierarchies and power relations between various (groups of) characters. Group work at this stage included tasks like describing the (structural) function of select chapters in relation to the whole novel and discussing the importance of analysing them (also with regard to how the chapters would fit into Regis’s eight points of the popular romance). Moreover, it encompassed analysing the narrative situation and devices (on the level of discourse), and figuring out how the different characters are constructed by the text, taking into account different levels of mediation.

The Regency romance deals with a set of stereotypical characters (for example the rake, the Byronic hero, and the bluestocking or the spinster), which were introduced in order for the students to be able to judge adherence to and deviation from these roles. Going over constructions of gender and gender difference in Bath Tangle required a short introduction to Freudian psychoanalysis and Lacanian psychosemiosis (especially the concept of the mirror stage) in order to illustrate the emergence of structures of difference and desire. Psychoanalytical questions included inquiries into oedipal structures and absent parental figures. Furthermore, Judith Butler’s concept of performativity, as incorporated into an analysis of Heyer by Lisa Fletcher in Historical Romance Fiction (13-24), was subsequently dealt with and proved to be a notion that the students understood very well and could transfer onto Bath Tangle. With respect to gender as such, the general inquiry started off with the students identifying and discussing the nature and characterization of patriarchal authority figures and other structures of patriarchy in Heyer’s text. We then moved on to questions of how the gender roles presented in the novel are constructed as normative. This was achieved by an analysis of the linguistic and stylistic markers which have become conventionalized and thus help consolidate the gender stereotypes within the fictitious realm. Lord Rotherham and Serena Carlow, the protagonists, were examined in relation to their respective doubles or foils in the narrative, Serena’s stepmother Fanny and Major Kirkby. This doubling allows two separate courtship plots to unfold and while one is given more narrative space, it was interesting to note that the more conventional (pseudo)historical upper class courtship failed, whereas the courtship depicted and constructed as not in keeping with the ideals of the Regency romance upper class was the more successful and more prominent one. On the level of discourse, however, the love-hate type of romance is still a stereotypical feature of the Regency romance since it provides more internal obstacles to be overcome by the potential couple, as the students determined.

Historical difference was another topic examined in connection with Heyer’s novel, starting out with the postmodern dissatisfaction with “history”[7] as such, and then opening up the pop cultural historical setting as a liminal space into which discussions of current problems get displaced or projected and then negotiated. Claims to verisimilitude are “an illusion, created by the structural features of the text” (Hughes 18); therefore the analysis of these structural features and the effect they achieve was an important task. The students’ assignment was to examine the function of the Regency setting, how the reader [End Page 8] encounters historicity and to decide whether there is a degree of metafictionality to the novel. For this purpose, Helen Hughes’s chapter on “The Structures of Historical Romance” (13-28) enabled the students to make the proper connections. Another important part of this task was gaining the ability to identify history as related to tradition and nostalgia on the level of story. On the level of discourse, history became visible as a combination of “dated” language and Regency markers. These markers could take the form of dress or customs, but could also surface in allusions to contemporaneous (political or social) Regency events and historical persons.

Concerning the second subgenre of choice, the desert romance, we began by determining the specific plot motifs, the set of what are now stereotypical characters, and the aspects of the setting that are specific to the subgenre. Moreover, we established the notion of Orientalism as a vital concept in analysing the setting and the characters constructed as “other” (Teo 241-261). The motifs of the harem and captivity became important in this context too, especially in connection with Emily Haddad’s article “Bound to Love” (42-64). The narrative analysis was done as group work and again focused strongly on pivotal scenes of the novel, such as the Recognition (Regis 36-37), the Point of Ritual Death (35-36) and the Declaration/Betrothal (34-35; 37-38). The self/other distinction and, in addition, the resulting colonial discourse inherent in The Sheik were examined by the students in order to be able to understand the intersections of the categories of race/nationality and gender—an approach that was transferred onto the 1921 US-American silent film adaptation starring Rudolph Valentino. The differences between the book and the film, such as the omission of rape scenes or the change in the first meeting of the protagonists, were analysed in light of the background of the time and place of production (e.g. laws banning inter-racial marriage/relationships and miscegenation) and with regard to plausibility to the intended audience of both book and film. Questions of ethnic/racial affiliation and their respective representations within the power dynamics of the desert romance were raised and led to an investigation into stereotypes of race and gender and the privileging of different sides of the hierarchical binary oppositions. The construction of dynamic hierarchies between protagonists and supporting characters in the text through narrative representation became one of the foci of the analysis as well as the heroine’s privileged narrative status as character focalizer. These differences and hierarchies also became apparent in the analysis of the different cover illustrations that have graced the novel The Sheik throughout the decades. Furthermore, the silent film version was used to illustrate the practice of hiring European actors to play non-European characters, thereby enforcing the notion of a possible slippage from the privileged category of difference into a non-privileged one, but prohibiting any movement from the non-privileged category to the privileged one. Silent film practices such as title cards, intertitles, background music and the distinctive acting style were analysed in comparison to contemporary and current expectations of a narrative film, in addition to the general implications of choice of actors and scenery. Here, the students’ initial reactions to the acting style, which encompassed statements such as “He [Valentino] looks completely ridiculous. I can’t take this film seriously” soon gave way to a deeper understanding of historical and technological developments of film as a medium, and its debt to theatrical traditions as well as, in case of the silent film, to melodrama.

Teaching in this segment was also highly influenced by student input. For example, one of the presenters on silent film analysis was not sure how to rate the importance and [End Page 9] effect of the real name of an actor appearing beneath the name of his character on the intertitle instead of being named in the final credits. This warranted further contextualization of the medium film within a wider debate concerning the moving image as illusion versus representing “reality.” The analysis identified the instance of the appearance of actor’s name on the intertitle as a means of breaking the fourth wall. This consequently serves to curb anxieties about miscegenation and the threatening Other for an audience that was still primarily perceived as passive and therefore open to the notion of the film as a reflection of “reality” at the time of the film’s production. In so doing, it was possible to demonstrate the impact these seemingly tangential questions that arise during a presentation can have, and to expose the intricate network of discursive effects that affects each and every form of representation in a certain medium.

The combination of Regency and desert setting in Kaye’s The Governess and the Sheikh confronted the students with their first category romance (published by Mills & Boon). By now, the students were, for the most part, able to work with concepts such as Orientalism on their own in study groups with only marginal input from the lecturer and could present their findings to the other groups, who had been performing analyses using a different approach. The gaze, interpreted as a narrative gaze in the sense of a focalizing character, representing a “point of view,” showed the incorporation of the male perspective into the desert romance novel. Whereas in The Sheik the male protagonist and his thought process remain closed-off from the heroine, and, by extension, also from the reader, the hero of The Governess and the Sheikh, Jamil, becomes available not just from the outside, by being described and looked at by the heroine, but actually by having his thought processes and feelings represented through character focalization as well. This serves to establish his attraction to and developing love for the heroine from the start, as opposed to the older novel, where the Declaration (Regis 34) has to take place in direct speech at the very end of the novel.

Moreover, the historical setting again provided for an interesting interpretation of the Regency and desert setting as liminal spaces for the negotiation of modern cultural issues. A group task for the students involved applying Jessica Taylor’s ideas on “[…] Gender, Race, and Orientalism in Contemporary Romance Novels” (1032-1051) to the novel. According to her article, the construction of the Orient as an imaginary space and place is made believable by citing detailed (often stereotypical) images (of furniture, clothing, architecture) which evoke verisimilitude, even though the texts are set in “imaginary [desert] locations” and realms (1038). Thus, a fantastical space is produced that is nevertheless imbued with plausibility. The Orient consequently becomes knowable and controllable along with the male hero who is “tamed” by the white, Western heroine. The hero’s choice of the white female protagonist as a partner and thereby his participation in heterosexual monogamy is contrasted with the myth of the Oriental harem, the latter being subsequently dispelled in its function as a threat to the protagonists’ relationship. This clears the future for a modernized (i.e. westernized) Orient under the positive influence of a white female figure (1040-1024). The opening chapter of The Governess and the Sheikh was under particular scrutiny here, since it starts out from the male character’s perspective, making it obvious it is his society which is defined and centring the romance more firmly on equal ground in later chapters where the representation of both the male and female protagonists’ views are concerned. The description of lavish surroundings as well as the hero’s dealings with matters of state establish the contrast between what Taylor [End Page 10] calls details of reality and an imaginary (desert) realm (Kaye 7-18) and thus prove Taylor’s point.

A further issue of interest in this modern Mills & Boon romance was the fact that this was the first novel we read that contained explicit levels of (hetero)sexual longings and activity. A student presentation on the development of the rise of the more sexually explicit romance dealt with jay Dixon’s chapters on this topic in her book The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909–1990s (133-153; 155-178) and detailed the relations between the Mills & Boon romance’s concept of “legitimate” or privileged expressions of heterosexual love, physical desire, and also violence as a form of character interaction. Concerning the actual description of the characters’ experience during sex, narrative perspective was of utmost importance, as well as Catherine Belsey’s idea about the bodily union being able to bridge a sort of Cartesian dualism (23). Talking about sex and sexual interaction, especially in connection with the emotions portrayed in the novel, it was surprising to see that most students were quite reluctant to discuss these scenes in detail in class—and if they did, they employed either rather inventive euphemisms that rivalled the romance’s vocabulary or they reduced a scene with full intercourse to the expression: “physical contact.” Generally, I had assumed that the session which incorporated psychoanalytic approaches to literature and the repeated use of terms like “penis envy” or “phallus” would have done away with this disinclination. Even more interesting was the fact that it turned out a majority of my students wanted to incorporate Kaye’s “explicit content” novel into their end of term papers, and most of them willingly made reference to one or more of the sex scenes in order to analyse power structures, discourses of gender or the body. Therefore, the reluctance to discuss these scenes seemed to be directed towards an official teaching (or semi-public) context, and not the result of a general aversion towards reading and analysing them—thereby giving strong indication that the Mills & Boon romance that was dealt with constitutes part of a pleasure which is considered private, or at least experienced as belonging to a non-public space. The male student, in contrast, was confident in discussing the sexual aspects of the books, and was particularly interested in applying a psychoanalytical approach to the romances we discussed.

The final topical session was dedicated to the noticeable changes in the popular romance as we had traced them in the three exemplary texts. The wider context for these changes was covered by a discussion of Dawn Heinecken’s article “Changing Ideologies in Romance Fiction” (149-172), which led to a further categorization and comparison of the novels’ protagonists as well as the pivotal plot points and developments.

The seminar ended with a revision session in which we collected the knowledge we had accumulated concerning the popular romance in general and the exemplary sub-generic texts in particular, while applying different approaches to the novels. Interactive collection of assembled knowledge made up most of this session, with the students devising a huge blackboard sketch with colour coding for information we had collected over the semester. This exercise was met with much enthusiasm and carried out very satisfactorily.

Noticeable among the students during the whole semester was that they had trouble shaking off their quick stereotypical judgments about the popular romance audience as “frustrated housewives,” even though the issue was made a topic of discussion at several points, clarifying that this idea about the popular romance audience was rooted in a 1970s/1980s feminist backlash and an older tradition of romance plots. Finally, I [End Page 11] conducted an anonymous evaluation of the seminar to get the students’ feedback in an attempt to judge the impact the seminar, the teaching style, and the information exchange had on them and if they thought any of this would shape their future studies. The overall feedback for the seminar was (grade-wise) between an A- and a B+ (overall average mark in numerical grading system was 1.58), and most of the students remarked on how surprised they had been that there were so many different things one could “do” (i.e. analyse) with a popular romance. The evaluation reflected a positive reception of the seminar’s structure and choice of primary and secondary texts. General topic preference was divided between desert and Regency romance and the respective approaches, but marketing strategies and the “romance industry” were also noted as subjects of great interest. Also, out of fourteen students who took part in the evaluation, eleven claimed a notable increase in their interest in and knowledge about the topic of the seminar. The focus of this interest was also reflected in the choice of seminar paper topics. Twelve students completed the end-of-term assignment and were successful. The rest of the students finished the seminar as such, but did not hand in a seminar paper, some due to internships abroad and some due to mismanagement of time. Bath Tangle was the students’ favourite romance to work on in their papers, and was thus analysed by five students, who wrote about gender and gender difference, love relationships as a consequence of difference in categories of power, the function of the depiction of traditional gender roles, and issues of class and class distinctions. Three incorporated Hull’s The Sheik into their papers and examined issues of discourses of race and nationality, power relations and the gaze, as well as constructions of masculinity. As for The Governess and the Sheikh, four students decided to work with the text, respectively analysing gendered discourses, the gaze, Orientalism and the construction of power relations through categories of difference. One student was very interested in venturing into another romance subgenre for analysis and focused on Christine Feehan’s The Lair of the Lion (2002) and the protagonists’ adherence to gender stereotypes in the gothic popular romance in comparison with stereotypical gothic novel characters. In general, the students exhibited a very good grasp of the approaches to the romance, even though a small number of the seminar papers that were handed in proved that they sometimes had difficulty distinguishing between the levels of story and narrative mediation. Moreover, they tended to conflate the retrospective fictional construct of a historical era as a setting in the novel with the actual historical era and its characteristics—especially when dealing with topics such as gender constructions in Bath Tangle. Here, one of the papers kept referring to “actual” Regency gender positions and comparing them to the characters’ in the romance novel, not taking into account Heyer’s version of the Regency as a post-Regency retrospective construct. This level of abstraction was, however, achieved by most of the students after having dealt with the issue in class in the session on constructions of history.

In conclusion, if I offered this seminar again, I would attempt to incorporate different secondary texts and include one session to actually analyse first-wave romance novel criticism in detail to help historicise judgments about the popular romance and its readers. Moreover, I would try to direct some of the discussion even more, since sometimes the group works did, for all of some students’ efforts, not result in as much academic interaction as previously anticipated—which then had the effect of the lecturer having to intervene in order to bring the session to a satisfactory ending. It would also be interesting to focus on different subgenres, such as paranormal romance and maybe historical [End Page 12] paranormal romance, with emphases on conceptualizations of the Other and the inclusion of gothic or horror elements. To sum it up, though, the seminar touched upon various literary and cultural studies approaches and demonstrated the multiplicity of possibilities as well as the versatility of the Regency and desert romance and its changing strategies of negotiating social position, class issues, gender standards and stereotypes as well as ideas of racial and ethnic categories. [End Page 13]

Appendix I.


[1] My degree course was started before the German university system switched to the BA and MA system in late 2007 (“Studiengänge und Prüfungen.”). Thus, the degree I studied for was the Magister Artium (M.A.), a degree mainly designed to prepare the student for a further academic career in his or her field. The average period of education was nine semesters, i.e. four and a half years. This period could be extended if, for example, students were to go abroad for one or two semesters. The final paper (called Magisterarbeit), roughly probably equivalent to a Master’s thesis, with eighty to a hundred pages in length, was the Magister thesis I handed in at this stage. After passing final examinations in both written and oral form, I was awarded the title M.A. The main difference to the Master of Arts is that there was no prior degree (like a BA) that had to be attained before you could complete your studies at M.A. level. Thus, subsequently, I was accepted as a doctoral candidate/ PhD candidate and started working towards my PhD thesis (called Dissertation in German). [End Page 14]

[2] For a better understanding of the hierarchical structure at the FAU, see Appendix 1. It has to be noted that the term ‘Chair’ does not denote just one professor and his/her position but instead encompasses one professor who holds the chair as well as various subordinate members of staff, ranking from post-doctoral lecturers to doctoral candidates who can also hold a teaching position.

[3] The term module is here intended in the British English sense of “each of a set of independent units of study or training that can be combined in a number of ways to form a course at a college or university […]” (“module.”). In this context of meaning, module is taken to be interchangeable with the term seminar, which, also being in the German descriptive title of the module, signals a preoccupation of both a limited number of students and the teacher with one overall topic which is discussed in a thorough, if not exhaustive manner (“seminar.”). Both terms also hint at the difference from a lecture, which would mainly involve input from the lecturer and less actual work (i.e. group work, discussions, presentations) on the students’ part.

[4] An especially interesting aspect here is that most of the popular romance publications in Germany are actually translations from the US-American or British market. There are some German romance authors, like Michelle Raven, for example, who writes romantic suspense, but they are few and far between. Thus, those students who attended my seminar and professed to be actual fans of popular romance were already familiar with the genre being dominated by British and US-American authors. Therefore, they were already familiar with authors like Georgette Heyer or Barbara Cartland.

[5] The module on popular romance as such, a type of seminar officially called Proseminar in German, is an independent elective module, to be taken after the students have completed a basic seminar and advanced seminar in literary studies (Grund- und Aufbaukurs Literature) as well as at least the introductory module in cultural studies (Grundkurs Culture). The advanced module in Cultural Studies, in which the students are supposed to read and analyse first-hand scholarly texts, is obligatory only for BA students (Krug 4-5), not for those pursuing a teaching degree (Mittmann 4-7). These basic or advanced seminars last one semester each, so by the time the students are eligible to attend the Proseminar described here, they are at least into their second year, i.e. third semester. The majority of my students were advanced undergraduates, most of them in their fourth semester, with two fifth-semester students, one sixth-semester student, and one who was in their eighth semester at the time. BA students made up the bulk of attendees, followed closely in number by the teaching degree students, the latter aspiring to become English teachers for the German classroom.

[6] These assessments are part of the general structure of the seminar as fixed in the examination rules for the whole course of study. For the different Proseminare to result in students having the same formal academic training in oral and written argumentation, which is essential in order to advance to the next level of their studies, the examinations and final assignments have to be comparable concerning their basic requirements.

[7] Here, a general introduction to postmodern conceptions of history was attempted, featuring scholars such as Hayden White and his notion of Meta-history, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s idea of grand narratives as well as Linda Hutcheon’s term historiographic metafiction. [End Page 15]

Works Cited

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

“Chair of English Literature.” UnivIS: Information system of Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. n. d. Web. 4 April 2014.

Daniel, David B. “Learning-Centered Lecturing.” Effective College and University Teaching: Strategies and Tactics for the New Professiorate. Ed. William Buskist and Victor A. Benassi. London: Sage, 2012. 91-98. Print.

“Department Anglistik/Amerikanistik und Romanistik.” UnivIS: Information system of Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. n. d. Web. 4 April 2014.

“Department of English and American Studies.” UnivIS: Information system of Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. n. d. Web. 4 April 2014.

“Departments.” UnivIS: Information system of Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. n. d. Web. 4 April 2014.

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

Engler, Sandra. “A Career’s Wonderful, but Love Is More Wonderful Still”: Femininity and Masculinity in the Fiction of Mills & Boon. Tübingen: Francke, 2005. Print.

“Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences and Theology.” UnivIS: Information system of Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. n. d. Web. 4 April 2014.

Feehan, Christine. Lair of the Lion. New York: Leisure, 2002. Print.

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

Haddad, Emily H. “Bound To Love: Captivity in Harlequin Sheikh Novels.” Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 42-64. Print.

Heinecken, Dawn. “Changing Ideologies in Romance Fiction.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler and Rosemary E. Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999. 149-172. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. Bath Tangle. 1955. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2011. Print.

Hollows, Joanne. Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000. Print.

Hughes, Helen. The Historical Romance. New York and London: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Hull, Edith Maude. The Sheikh: A Novel. 1919. [n.a.]: BiblioBazaar, 2007. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. 1988. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Johansen, Kathrin Einsteigerhandbuch Hochschullehre – Aus der Praxis für die Praxis. Darmstadt, WBG, 2010. Print.

Kaye, Marguerite. The Governess and the Sheikh. Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2011. Print.

Krug, Christian. “Studienplaner: Bachelorstudiengang.“ Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Erlangen. 28 Feb 2012. Web. 3 April 2014.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1979. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997. Print.

Mittmann, Brigitta. “Englisch für das Lehramt an Gymnasien – Studien- und Examensplaner.“ Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Erlangen. 11 September 2013. Web. 3 April 2014.

“module.” Oxford Dictionary of English. 2nd ed., revised. 2005. Print.

[End Page 16]

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

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

Robb, J.D. Naked in Death. 1995. New York: Berkley Books, 2007. Print.

“seminar.” Oxford Dictionary of English. 2nd ed., revised. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

“Studiengänge und Prüfungen.” Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Erlangen. 18 October 2011. Web. 5 April 2014.

Taylor, Jessica. “And You Can Be My Sheikh: Gender, Race, and Orientalism in Contemporary Romance Novels.” The Journal of Popular Culture 40.6 (2007): 1032-1051. Print.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. “Orientalism and Mass Market Romance Novels in the Twentieth Century.” Edward Said: The Legacy of a Public Intellectual. Ed. Ned Curthoys. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2007. 241-261. Print.

The Sheik. Dir. George Melford. Perf. Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres, Patsy Ruth Miller. Paramount, 1921. DVD.

White, Hayden V. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. 1973. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.

[End Page 17]


“I’m a Feminist, But…” Popular Romance in the Women’s Literature Classroom
by Julie M. Dugger

As I grew older and began to better identify my values and beliefs… I realized that reconciling my love of feminist theory and classic romances would be no easy task.

—Student discussion post, 2012 [End Page 1]

To hear my classmates say “I hate that I enjoy this book because it’s a romance” makes me clench my fists.

—Student discussion post, 2012

The enduring popularity of the romance novel makes it an ideal genre to use in teaching feminist literary theory because it raises a compelling question: What is the women’s studies critic to do when a genre dominated by women writers and readers appears to conflict with feminist ideals? The question becomes all the more significant when the romance reader and the romance critic are the same person: when, that is, a student who enjoys reading romances is asked to assess them critically. Given the popularity of the romance genre, this is a situation that teachers should expect to encounter every time they bring a romance text to class, and one that provides key opportunities for reflecting not only on romance, but on assumptions in literary and feminist studies that might otherwise go unexamined.

The opposition between feminist theory and women’s popular reading practices is an especially pointed instance of an opposition often expressed in the scholarship of teaching literature more generally. Teachers note the disjunction students feel when asked to switch from one set of interpretive practices (popular reading), to another (academic critical reading). This article advocates not only that we acknowledge the disjunction between these practices, but also that we make it an analytical focus. I will outline the different emphases of popular and critical reading, then look more specifically at feminist critical arguments for and against romance to better understand the contradictions students face when they attempt to read romances in an academic context using a women’s studies approach. One of these arguments for romance is that the romance genre and the popular, female-dominated reading strategies associated with it can be less alienating to women than the genres and strategies associated with academic literary criticism, a field historically dominated by men. I will attempt to address this shortcoming by identifying ways to approach and incorporate popular romance reading practices for critical analysis in class.

When students are invited to consider women’s enthusiasm for the popular romance alongside those aspects of the romance narrative that they find dangerous from a feminist perspective, they are also invited to think critically about the relationship between feminist theory and the diverse women for whom it advocates, including themselves. They must acknowledge their own overdetermination as readers: that they read using practices taken from varied personal and cultural pasts, practices that sometimes conflict with the new perspectives they are embracing as university students. They will be moved to question what critics value in literature, and how assumptions about gender influence those values. In short, they will be invited into a moment of metacognition, furthering their “ability to recognize and evaluate [their] own thinking” (Linkon 68). Students may respond by condemning the romance, by condemning feminist assumptions, or by attempting to reconcile the two. But whatever their conclusions, by juxtaposing what seem to be opposed practices—popular and critical romance reading—they gain a better sense of the beliefs and contexts motivating each. [End Page 2]

Popular and Critical Reading Practices

How wide is the gap between critical and popular reading practices in discussions of teaching literature? So wide that some scholars suggest a student who takes easily to one of these practices is likely to be stymied by the other. In his article “Disliking Books at an Early Age,” Gerald Graff notes that “when I was growing up I disliked and feared books” (36), and that he only began to enjoy reading after acquiring a literary critical lens for it, “as if having a stock of things to look for and to say about a literary work had somehow made it possible for me to read one” (39). Conversely, Sarah Webster Goodwin describes classes of “sullen and resistant” (233) students who are unwilling to turn a critical lens on their love of romance, either in life or in literature: “as a whole, they do not want to critique romance. To understand it, yes, but not if the price is losing its magic” (234).

As both Graff and Goodwin indicate, critical and popular reading practices use strategies that often conflict. James Marshall, in an examination of studies of these different strategies, reports that academic critical reading and analysis are characterized by “the close reading of selected texts in relative isolation from cultural contexts” (384). By contrast, the popular reading practices of book groups and book clubs stress immersion in the world of the book and are “far more likely … to relate personal experiences, talk about important ethical issues, and share their emotional experience of reading” (386).[1] Critical approaches tend to be text-centered; popular approaches draw more on readers’ social and individual contexts.

In an examination of Janeites, or Austen fans, Claudia Johnson also contrasts popular and academic critical reading strategies. Academic practices specify

that it is inappropriate to talk about characters as if they were real people or in any way to speculate upon their lives before, after, or outside the text itself [as popular readers do]; that biographical information about an author is irrelevant at best and heretical (i.e., a ‘fallacy’) at worst; … that Austen’s novels are essentially about marriage, and that the courtship plot—rather than, say, the category character—is the major event in her fiction. (214)

It is important to note that the popular reading practices described by both Marshall and Johnson are highly intellectual. A critical reader might ask how the book’s narrative point-of-view reveals a character, while a popular reader might consider how that character, as revealed in the book, would behave in a situation the book does not describe: “before, after, or outside the text itself.” Both begin with a text-based analysis (both evaluate the character as created by the book), even though one approach stays with the text and the other moves away from it.

Marshall also points out that of the two reading strategies, popular reading is the more dominant and resilient, even for “college-educated readers of more ‘serious fiction’” (386). “[T]here is little or no correlation,” he writes, “between the reading practices we teach in school and the reading practices in which most adults engage when they leave school” (386). Life-long readers return to the popular reading practices they used before they took up academic critical reading—the latter, if Marshall is correct, stays in the [End Page 3] academy. Thus if literature plays an influential role in society, that influence would appear to operate primarily through popular rather than critical practices.

It follows that scholars who are interested in cultural criticism—and, from a literary angle, in how books contribute to society—should take an interest in popular reading. This is not to say we should abandon the particular strengths, intellectual engagements, and even pleasures of critical reading: in fact if students’ university careers are the one brief window in which they adopt academic critical practices, then it is all the more important that we, as academic practitioners ourselves, make the most of that window. But one of the ways we can make the most of it is by working with what students already have and are likely to return to in the future. There is much to be gained from putting the popular ways in which they already read into dialogue with the critical reading practices we are teaching them.

Fortunately, not all students react to the contradictions between popular and critical reading practices by rejecting one and restricting themselves to the other. In five years of teaching a romance unit for a course on “Women and Literature,” I have found that most students are open to considering both strategies, despite their varying degrees of experience with popular romance reading and academic critical reading (especially feminist academic criticism).

Students in the class range from those with little-to-no romance reading experience, to those who not only read romances but participate in romance fan organizations. The category of inexperienced romance readers includes many male students, who often report unfamiliarity with the genre (not surprising, considering that 91% of romance buyers are women [Scott]). Unlike Graff, however, even students who have not previously read romances seem prepared not only to take them on, but often to describe the experience of reading them as a pleasurable one. “I’m glad we were given an actual excerpt from a Harlequin book,” writes one student, “since we’ve been talking about them in class so much”; while another notes that “As an outsider coming into the Pride and Prejudice universe, I have found the book to be incredibly enjoyable.” At times this pleasurable reading is presented as incompatible with critical analysis. In one online post, a student describes suspending his critical understanding of romance plots (an understanding bolstered by class sessions that outlined and analyzed these plots) to better enjoy a novel: “Despite never having read this novel prior to this class, I am fairly certain of the resolution. When I read it, however, I dismiss any such predictions because I am thoroughly enjoying the read and I don’t want my predictions to interrupt this surprisingly pleasant reading experience.”

This comment is typical in that the student, like many critics, sees popular and critical reading practices as mutually exclusive: working critically by using plot models to make predictions will “interrupt” the experience of “thoroughly enjoying the read.” As contradictory as these practices may feel, however, most students appear willing to take on both of them. The student who suspended plot analysis while reading, for instance, readily moved back into critical mode to reflect on his reading experience once it was completed. And unlike Goodwin’s students, who “often don’t call themselves feminists” (237), my students also seem prepared to approach the course material from a feminist perspective—which is to be expected, given that they have voluntarily enrolled in a class titled “Women and Literature.” Indeed, a significant number of students in the class already [End Page 4] identify as women’s studies scholars, whose embrace of feminism and its critical practices is a driving force in their intellectual development.

All this engagement with both critical and popular reading practices, however, does not protect students from feeling the differences between them, and wondering if it is impossible to hold both perspectives in combination. This is particularly the case when the critical approach is feminist and the reading material is the romance, since feminist scholarship has often—and not without justification—seen the popular romance novel as harmful to women.

But the feminist critique of the romance is increasingly offset by feminist voices in support of it, sometimes within the academy and sometimes outside of it. By introducing students to both sides of this argument—to the cases for and against romance—we open the door for an appraisal of popular romance reading in particular, as well as of the relationship between popular and critical reading practices more generally.

The Feminist Case Against Romance

The opposition between feminist theory and the romance novel dates back as early as the publication of Janice Radway’s 1984 work, Reading the Romance. Radway’s study is considered a pioneering work in reader-response theory as well as in romance studies, since she took the key step of studying romance by studying romance readers. Radway conducted extensive interviews with a group of Midwestern romance fans, all of them women and many of them, significantly, housewives. To her great credit, she allowed her interviews to change the course of her study entirely. What started out as an examination of the formal properties of romance shifted to encompass an analysis of romance novels’ affective qualities as well.

Reading the Romance is a tour de force that pulls together Marxist, psychoanalytic, reader response, and formalist arguments. It was influential when published and has continued to be an obligatory citation in romance novel scholarship ever since.[2] Like all studies, however, the book has its blind spots, and Radway, writing in a time when homemaking may have seemed more of a gender-restricted default than a career choice, appears to hold it in little esteem. The women in her study, for example, repeatedly state that they value their caregiving relationships with their husbands and children. As individuals whose primary occupation is homemaking, they are “very proud of their abilities to communicate with and to serve the members of their families” (92). Yet Radway, not herself a professional homemaker, seems to find it impossible to believe other women might be happy and fulfilled in that role. Rather than comparing homemakers who take romance-reading breaks to college professors who shut their office doors between classes, Radway sees the caregiver’s labor as inherently oppressive. The narrative structure of romance, she writes,

demonstrates that despite idiosyncratic histories, all women inevitably end up associating their female identity with the social roles of lover, wife, and mother. Even more successfully than the patriarchal society within which it was born, the romance denies women the possibility of refusing that purely [End Page 5] relational destiny and thus rejects their right to a single, self-contained existence. (207)

Because she doesn’t consider the possibility that some individuals might autonomously prefer a “relational destiny” to “a single, self-contained existence,” Radway seems convinced that her interviewees have been duped. “[T]his literary form,” she writes of the romance, “reaffirms its founding culture’s belief that women are valuable not for their unique personal qualities but for their biological sameness and their ability to perform that essential role of maintaining and reconstituting others” (208). Romance novels, to Radway, are a tool used by housewives to reconcile themselves to serving others in a patriarchal society, thereby perpetuating their own oppression.

One wonders if any of Radway’s subjects read her study, and if so, what they thought of her claim that reading was the opiate by which they drugged themselves into social submission. But we do not have to wonder what Sarah Webster Goodwin’s students thought of her condemnation of romance, because she tells us. Goodwin begins a class on “Romance and Gender in the United States” intending to show her students that romance “is a cultural form of tremendous power, and one that is disadvantageous to women” (233). As she discovers, this argument doesn’t fly well in a class of students who aspire to romance in their own lives (234), some of whom even admit, “reluctantly and with hesitant laughter,” that they read romance novels (239). “In no other course,” she writes, “have I lost so many students; no other course has actually cost me a full night’s sleep from worry” (233).

If Radway, in 1984, writes at a time when homemaking might have been seen as a restrictive default for women, Goodwin, in her 1997 article, describes women students who don’t feel restricted at all. They don’t identify as feminists, “because the need for feminism is over: we are already equal” (237). Goodwin’s students, in the process of earning their college degrees, are unlikely to see homemaking as the obligatory choice it may have been for Radway’s women, only eight percent of whom were college-educated (50). Like my own students, some of whom were raised by women who freely and deliberately chose a domestic career, Goodwin’s students do not assume with Radway that traditional female roles are inherently oppressive (an assumption that carries its own sexism). Nor do they appear to be women’s studies scholars, trained to recognize the continuing presence of sexism in a legally equal-opportunity society. Instead, the students in Goodwin’s class see neither domesticity nor discrimination as a problem.

Accordingly, these students are at a loss in a class that views the promotion of domestic pairing as a form of sexist domination. It is one thing for critics to write, as Radway does, about distant romance fans who may not be reading the critic’s disapproval. It is a far more difficult thing, Goodwin discovers, to bring that disapproval out into the open with students who don’t share it.

Despite the unpalatability of their conclusions to fans of the genre, however, critics like Radway and Goodwin have good reasons for distrusting romance novels. The feminist case against romance, as presented by both professional critics and students, works from three main objections:

1. Romance endorses women’s relational roles at the expense of their individual development. [End Page 6]

Radway plots “the narrative structure of the ideal romance” in thirteen steps. In step one, “[t]he heroine’s social identity is destroyed” (134). In the conclusion to the novel (steps 11-13), it is restored through union with the hero:

  1. The hero proposes/openly declares his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness.
  2. The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
  3. The heroine’s identity is restored. (134)

Radway sees the romance’s emphasis on relational identity (the heroine regains her identity only through union with the hero) as patriarchally restrictive: “[t]he romance does deny the worth of complete autonomy. In doing so, however, it is not obliterating the female self completely. Rather, it is constructing a particular kind of female self, the self-in-relation demanded by patriarchal parenting arrangements” (147). Because the romance emphasizes identity secured through heterosexual union with a man, it seems tailor-made to enforce the traditional female role of dependent wife, discouraging alternatives.

Many of my students find this emphasis as disturbing as Radway does. To quote a discussion post, “The whole idea that a woman ‘finds herself’ or discovers her true identity only after a man has validated her … is troubling to me.” Students embrace the idea that self-discovery is an independent enterprise (hence the “self”), and feminist students especially, because they are aware of how often women have been and continue to be denied such independence, express discomfort with the way romances idealize identity found through another. Even if, as I will argue below, there is much to be admired in a genre that validates women’s traditional relational identity, there is also danger in that validation. Women may not default into domestic roles in our own time quite as easily as they did in Radway’s, but they are still more likely to end up in those roles than men are, and to feel more pressure to occupy them. It is thus not surprising that feminist readers take alarm when they find that the literary genre that most encourages relational identity is also a genre directed mainly toward women.

2. Romance plots and characters validate abusive relationship patterns.

Still more troubling than the heroine’s ultimate relational identity is how she arrives at it. In Radway’s narrative structure, before the heroine and hero love each other, they hate each other: “The heroine responds to the hero’s behavior with anger or coldness,” and “The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine” (134). In the most extreme instances, this punishment involves rape, which means that the heroine must regain her identity by loving her rapist.

There may be mitigating factors here. Radway’s readers don’t like rape stories (71), and romance reviewers Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan argued in 2009 that rape romances are an “Old Skool” phenomenon (13), largely dated: “The rapist hero went away by degrees … cultural sensibilities have changed, and fictional rape, especially by the hero, is more likely to burn the average romance reader’s biscuit than melt our butter” (24-5). Arguably, the most egregious instances of the hero punishing the heroine have never been embraced by women readers, and are a legacy issue now.[3]

But the legacy is very real. Even in contemporary romances, the relationship between hero and heroine can be highly dysfunctional, even abusive. Recent megahits Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, feature heroes who keep stalker-close tabs [End Page 7] on the heroine’s whereabouts (sometimes without her knowledge), and heroines who become emotionally dependent in ways that isolate them from other relationships or life activities (Peronto). Radway describes women’s interest in abusive romances as an attempt to come to terms with their oppression: “the same awful possibilities of violence that dominate bad romances are always evoked as potential threats to female integrity even in good romances, simply because women are trying to explain this situation to themselves” (72). Violence, sadly, is something women readers, past and present, can relate to.

Even the mildest of punishments still send the message that the best relationships evolve out of antagonism between the partners and humiliation of the heroine. Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is “punished” only in the sense that she suffers when she discovers she has been wrong, and Fitzwilliam Darcy does not desire to punish her at all—only to tell his side of his story. Most readers of this very beloved romance come to the conclusion that both hero and heroine required humiliation: it betters their proud and prejudiced characters, a development set up from the very title of the book. Novels, after all, require transformation. A romance story in which heroine and hero fell instantly in love and stayed there would be very short. Whatever its narrative rationalization, however, a genre in which love is repeatedly founded in hate sets a problematic model for human relationships.

3. Romance novels are commercial, formulaic productions of little literary value that perpetuate harmful media stereotypes.

Romance novels are undeniably a lucrative commodity. The Romance Writers of America (RWA), who keep some of the best-documented statistics on the subject, report that romance “generated $1.438 billion in sales in 2012” and “was the largest share of the U.S. consumer market in 2012 at 16.7 percent” (emphasis RWA’s).[4] Literary fiction, by comparison, generated $470.5 million (Scott). Radway argues that romances are not only sold like advertised commodities, but have the same effect on their readers: the romance novel “presents satisfaction, contentment, and pride, not as a result of the individual’s actions or social intercourse with others, but as the natural consequence of the activity of consuming or displaying a particular product. Happiness is not an emotional condition that one creates for oneself through action; in advertising, it is a thing that one can buy” (117). By Radway’s argument, romance buyers are fed virtual happiness, rather than acting to create real happiness.

One can presumably buy happiness by purchasing literary novels as well, yet literary critics do not object to this. Romance novels, from a literary critical perspective, are different not only because they are so much more successfully sold, but also because, like other branded commodities, one is as good as another. To the critic, if not to the romance reader, romances lack individuality. Even literary romances often follow the thirteen predictable points in Radway’s plot outline. And category romances, by this logic, are even worse, appearing in numbered series where each book is guaranteed to resemble the next, since all must adhere to a formula established not by the author who writes individual stories, but by the publisher who sells them in mass. Content aside, one can distinguish a category romance from a single-title romance by the size of the author’s name on the cover: if the name is as large as or larger than the title of the book, it’s probably not a category romance. Indeed, for anyone who believes in authorial genius or originality, the category romance is a slap in the face. “I don’t like the thought that writing a book all comes down to [End Page 8] a ‘formula’ that any average person can follow,” writes one student. “I realize that this is snobby, but I just feel that having the … ability to write an amazing book is rare, so the fact that it has to be ‘dumbed down’ really annoy[s] me.” The standardization of the romance is seen to attack both the author’s genius and the reader’s intelligence.

The other and more feminist problem with the romance novel’s commodification is that it repeats harmful gender stereotyping also found in the larger culture. As one self-proclaimed early romance fan in my class wrote, her childhood reading “gave me a very distinct idea of what I needed to be to be considered a woman of worth. To be as successful as the characters in these books I needed to be patient, quiet, shy, beautiful, unique, kind, generous, thin, organized, well-kept, virginal, and most of all, inexplicably captivating.”[5] Students are quick to note that romances promote stereotypical standards of worth not only in their heroines, but also in their heroes. In Radway’s description, “[t]he hero of the romantic fantasy is always characterized by spectacular masculinity,” and it isn’t difficult to find this hero surviving in current writer’s guidelines for romance writers.[6] As a male student wrote, the romance could “create unrealistic standards among women for men to be prince charming and to live up to the highest expectations of chivalry.” Existing in a typological box themselves, romances encourage their readers to stay in them, and to seek other people who match pre-existing, standardized, and unrealistic expectations.

 The Feminist Case for Romance

Even feminist scholarship that is highly critical of romance has good reason to look for the up-side of a genre so clearly associated with women, and Radway and Goodwin both find positives there. Further, students and critics influenced by third-wave feminism, which tends to be more open to stereotypical femininity than the second-wave criticism of Radway’s time was, may be more open to romance along with it. As one student writes of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books romance review and fan site:

I like what the S[mart] B[itches] girls are doing because they show it is not a negative thing to read or write a romance, everyone is free to explore and enjoy as they like! Like these books and the third wave of feminism, I think we should be valuing each interest…. I think we must be careful about putting certain opinions or ways of living into the category of “not as good” or into “not a true feminist…”

From both the second and the third wave, then, feminist arguments in favor of romance point to the genre’s utopian potential, its validation of traditional female roles, and its challenging of individualist assumptions that have been problematic for women readers and writers, particularly in an academic context.

1. Romances offer women a way to acknowledge their oppression and imagine a better future.

A devoted teacher, Goodwin loses sleep and listens to the “Romance and Gender” students who speak to her through their “passive walk-out” (233). “I have learned,” she [End Page 9] writes, “to concede to my students that there is something to admire in the romance paradigm: that it is not just an enforcer of the status quo but a fantasy vehicle for change, a utopian impulse” (239). Radway sees similar potential in the romance:

Romance reading supplements the avenues traditionally open to women for emotional gratification by supplying them vicariously with the attention and nurturance they do not get enough of in the round of day-to-day existence. It counter-valuates because the story opposes the female values of love and personal interaction to the male values of competition and public achievement and, at least in ideal romances, demonstrates the triumph of the former over the latter. Romance reading and writing might be seen therefore as a collectively elaborated female ritual through which women explore the consequences of their common social condition as the appendages of men and attempt to imagine a more perfect state where all the needs they so intensely feel and accept as given would be adequately addressed. (212)

If Radway’s ultimate conclusion in Reading the Romance is that romances prevent women from bettering their lot by repeatedly insisting that their relational roles are their destiny, here she suggests that the romance does at least allow them to imagine that relational destiny in “a more perfect state.” Radway’s housewife romance-readers nurture others but are insufficiently nurtured themselves. Romance heroines, by contrast, are nurtured by romance heroes. Romances, then, allow their readers not only to experience vicarious nurturing through identification with the heroine, but also to acknowledge and explore the lack of nurturance in their own lives. If they do not encourage reform, they at least allow women to acknowledge the need for reform.

2. Romances challenge a male-modeled individualism.

Romances allow Radway’s housewives not only to address a lack of nurturance in their own domestic, relational positions. They also allow them to imagine a society in which those positions are appreciated rather than denigrated. It is painfully ironic that in the same paragraph where Radway observes that the romance “opposes the female values of love and personal interaction to the male values of competition and public achievement,” she refers to women in domestic roles as “the appendages of men.” Why do women read romances, and why might feminists love them? Because, unlike Radway, romances do not assume that people in relationally-oriented traditional female roles are categorically subordinate to people in individualistically-oriented traditional male roles.

If romance imagines “a more perfect state” for Radway’s women, it also validates where they are presently. Relationships and domesticity are supreme in the romance, even if elsewhere relational domestic work continues to be devalued culturally and economically: the stereotypical housewife outside the romance is desperate, dumb, or bored, and people who care for children are paid little, if at all. As long as women are associated with “love and personal interaction,” in opposition to a masculinity-associated “competition and public achievement,” then they win with the romance novel, where love triumphantly rules. [End Page 10]

As Goodwin comments, updating Radway, the importance of relationships is a theme that continues to resound in a culture where sexuality is not always relational. If Radway’s women defaulted into relational roles, Goodwin describes romance readers who may feel pressure to deny their desire for close emotional relationships. The persistence of romance, she writes, suggests “an enduring dissatisfaction with the pleasure of sex without emotional involvement. We read in category romances explicit sex scenes, but in the context of a familiar—very familiar—affective bond.” Romances thus “return sexuality to the affective bond in the fantasy life of a reader who may feel some social pressure to be stronger, more autonomous, than she wants to be” (239). Romances thus validate not only women who elect to stay in traditional relational roles, but also women who feel overly pressured to leave relationality behind in pursuit of emotional and sexual independence.

In the romance, both the heroine and, significantly, the hero opt for a committed relationship. Not only the woman but also the man—typically, as Radway points out, a hyper-masculine man—must embrace a relational destiny if the novel is to achieve a happy romantic ending. The obligatory antagonism between heroine and hero in the standard romance plot is key in this validation. It establishes that both heroine and hero are capable of independence, and when they trade it in for romance they do so freely, accepting relational lives as superior lives.

Thus if romance’s undermining of individualism is sometimes seen as a danger by feminist critics, it might also be seen as an asset. This is particularly the case since feminism, along with other identity politics approaches, has reason to be highly suspicious of the “single, self-contained existence” that Radway presents as a basic human right. Quite apart from the fact that nobody actually lives a single, self-contained existence, there are ideological perils in imagining such a life as the ideal state. The individual in the Western intellectual tradition has been defined by a male model.[7] As a student in Goodwin’s class aptly notes of a study that critiques women’s emphasis on finding romantic relationships, “They’re thinking just like men. You’re not serious unless you’re just focused on work and career” (236). Goodwin notes in her class, correctly, that “romance is a relatively recent and unusual phenomenon” and “not primarily biological, but cultural” (233). But the same might be said of individualism. Romance and individualism indeed go hand-in-hand: romance is after all the celebration of individual choice (rather than family arrangement) in a relationship between two people, each of whom is uniquely irreplaceable to the other. If we are to critique romance as a social construction (and we ought to), then we should give individualism equal scrutiny.

3. Romance provides women with an alternative to a sexist high-culture literary canon.

“Why does every female genius have to die insane and alone?” writes one student in my class in response to the story of Judith Shakespeare in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf famously tells the story of Judith, William Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister whose attempts to duplicate her brother’s career end with her suicide, to make the point that social and educational inequities would have prevented even a woman as talented as Shakespeare from finding success as a Renaissance writer. This is an essential point to make, but as my student’s response emphasizes, women’s doomed and helpless fate under social oppression is a story that high-culture literature tells repeatedly. It is also a story that can, as romance writer Jennifer Crusie observes, be profoundly alienating to women. In [End Page 11] her former career as a Ph.D. student, Crusie writes, “I had to read Madame Bovary, I had to read Anna Karenina, I had to read ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’ I had to read Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Lawrence. I had to see Hester Prynne as the great American heroine who triumphs by remaining celibate for the rest of her endless life.” While in the middle of this mandatory curriculum of stories of disastrous female sexuality, Crusie, looking for examples of women’s narratives, begins reading romances:

For the first time, I was reading fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea, women who won on their own terms (and those terms were pretty varied) and still got the guy in the end without having to apologize or explain that they were still emancipated even though they were forming permanent pair bonds, women who moved through a world of frustration and detail and small pleasures and large friendships, a world I had authority in.

For Crusie, romance is not utopian fantasy. It describes a world more familiar and real to her than the world of the academic literary canon, in which sex condemns a woman to an early death (often at her own hand), and marriage means slavery. In the world of romance, the autonomous woman need not “die insane and alone.” She can live on and have a successful relationship that assists rather than thwarts her self-realization—which, after all, is something that many women actually do.

Crusie’s experience serves as a vivid reminder that domestic suburbia is not the only place where women suffer the effects of patriarchy. The world of high culture has its own forms of oppression, as does the world of academic research, and critics and professors are no more immune to the influence of patriarchy than are mass-market publishers. And here we might pause to consider how an emphasis on individualism has affected the way high-culture literary institutions define authorship, and correspondingly how they define good literature. We value originality in literature partly because, despite literary criticism’s present-day emphasis on historical and cultural context, we still think of the best literary works as the products of exceptionally talented individuals. In my student’s words, having the “ability to write an amazing book is rare.” A book with a formulaic plot, by contrast, doesn’t feel rare at all. If anyone could write it—if many have in fact already written it—then it feels short on genius.

But our critical emphasis on originality in literature is not just cultural and historical; it is also to a certain extent illusory. If girl-meets-boy, girl-hates-boy, girl-loves-boy is a clichéd plot (romance), so too is wife-is-unfulfilled, wife-rebels, wife-dies (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Revolutionary Road, “To Room Nineteen,” etc.). Indeed, it might be said that both narrative paradigms are merely opposite sides of the same modern Western relational coin: one utopian and one dystopian, and both entirely derivative.

I don’t want to overstate the case here. I am certainly not arguing that there’s no qualitative difference between, say, To the Lighthouse and a stack of Harlequins. Many criteria apart from plot structure might separate romances, or at least category romances, from high literature. Radway for instance points out that the romance readers in her study prefer conventional prose that does not require “hard work” to follow (196-7). But not all novels with a romance plot use transparent language: the Radway readers who avoid [End Page 12] difficult prose also avoid Jane Austen (197). Given that complex language may appear in romances, and borrowed plots in high-culture novels, we might ask whether the romance’s poor literary reputation is founded not only on notions of quality but also on gender politics.

Johnson, for example, has noted that mid-twentieth-century literary scholars, primarily male, made Jane Austen novels into acceptable material for serious study by masculinizing the way they were read. Chastising non-academic Janeites for their love of “novels by ‘a mere slip of a girl,’” scholars “participate[d] in that demand to consolidate and reinvigorate masculinity elsewhere visible in the larger context of British and American culture” (220). This revision of thinking on Austen was part of a larger effort to further university study of the novel itself, which previously had not been considered worth scholars’ time:

Academic literary criticism of the 1940s and early 1950s saves Austen from her admirers and for a middle-class professorate by celebrating her acerbity and seriousness, championing her fiction as a legitimate object of study in the as yet young field of novel studies over and against the ostensibly frivolous appreciation of Janeites. (220)

Predictably, one of these legitimizing, masculinizing strategies was to de-romanticize this writer of romance plots. “Indeed,” Johnson writes, “Austen’s very skepticism about romantic love is in part what qualifies her as a tough-minded fellow traveler” (221). Austen a romantic? Not really. Put her on the syllabus![8]

That the novel’s disreputability is associated with women readers and their relational interests would not have come as any surprise to Austen herself, who lampooned such attitudes. Although Northanger Abbey provides a critique of readers who confuse fiction with reality, it is also scathing toward those who look down on novels as a gender-coded waste of time. When heroine Catherine Morland “with all the civility and deference of the youthful female mind, fearful of hazarding an opinion of its own in opposition to that of a self-assured man,” asks the foolish Mr. Thorpe if he had read Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, he shoots her down: “Udolpho! Oh, Lord! not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do” (47). But Thorpe’s opinion is in turn shot down in this exchange between Catherine and the novel’s hero, Henry Tilney:

“…But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you—gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Miss Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure.” (102) [End Page 13]

In the world of Northanger Abbey, the ability to take pleasure in books that women read cements Henry Tilney’s general fabulousness. In the world of Austen criticism, however, it would mark him as a lightweight of ambiguous sexuality who fails to understand “that the business of studying [literature] is serious indeed, requiring analytical skills and specialist knowledges available through courses of study at colleges and universities” (Johnson 214). Amongst those with “something else to do,” novels are not for fun.

And so we return to the pervasive opposition of critical and popular reading. Goodwin may learn from her students to appreciate romance, but she still despairs when a class full of women, viewing the BBC Pride and Prejudice, “emits a collective sigh” as Darcy “simply removes his cravat, throwing back his head and revealing his neck” (240). “At that moment,” she recalls,

I doubted that I would be able to edge those students into a critical perspective on the film. I was right. Not until I got them into Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was I able to pull them along with me—because that novel, more than anything else we read, places ambivalence and its catastrophes overtly and brilliantly on the table. (240-41)

Perhaps it is to be expected that a pedagogy founded on the assumption that romance is “disadvantageous to women” finds it more difficult to analyze a story in which a woman gains a hard-won understanding with a man she comes to admire and happily marry, than a story in which a woman idealizes a lover who steals her money, flirts with infidelity, and beats her. As long as students can’t analyze the romances that make them sigh, they will have only a fragmentary understanding of romance altogether—and not to mention (especially if Marshall is correct about the dominance of popular reading practices) of their own past, present, and future reading choices. If we really want students to analyze the narratives of romance—utopian as well as dystopian—especially when we teach in a culture that is so caught up in these narratives, we must enable them to work critically from their pleasure as well as their discomfort.

Critiquing from Pleasure

Perhaps the first step in making room for students to read pleasurably as well as critically is to acknowledge that all interpretive practices have strengths and weaknesses, and academic reading is no exception. Literary critical reading has its own limits, its own professional turf to defend, and its own forms of sexism. It can benefit students in any academic class on feminist literary studies to be aware of work like Johnson’s: studies that draw attention to the ways male scholars have elevated themselves above other men by comparing those men’s reading practices to women’s.[9] This is not to say that the texts and practices privileged by scholarship are all bad, but that they are part of the same patriarchal culture that pleasurable romance reading is a part of, and susceptible to the many of the same defects. Correspondingly, just as scholarly reading has its strengths, so too does pleasurable reading. We can encourage multiple modes of approaching a text. [End Page 14]

Further, we should bring these multiple modes into the classroom. Literary education need not be presented as a unidirectional progressive move from one style of reading to another. We should not only acknowledge the validity of non-academic forms of reading, but explore them in an academic context. The following practices may enable such consideration:

1. Use and integrate multiple venues of discussion.

This article is certainly not the first to advocate using different discussion formats—large group, small group, online posts, etc.—to make it easier for students with different learning styles and comfort levels to enter a discussion (see for example Linkon 67-8). But it is all the more important to make different entry points available when the topic is romance reading, so often disparaged in high-culture contexts including academe. Assigning online responses is particularly effective, as it allows students to venture opinions that they might be shy about expressing in person. The downside of online posts is that they can sometimes go unread by other students, so if I find one that is particularly apt, I bring it into class for closer attention.

2. Juxtapose high- and low-culture romances.

As Pamela Regis reminds us, “[t]he courtship story [was] a major force shaping the novel in English” (63). Great novels are often great romances, and the moment we include high-culture texts in the romance genre, we dramatically increase the number of students willing to admit they enjoy romances. Including high-culture novels has the further advantage of opening the question of why some texts are valued in an academic context more than others. Students may consider factors from syntax to assumptions about originality to fan-culture reading practices to the dynamics of canon formation.

Making romance novels the focus of these considerations helps us unpack how a text or genre’s association with women affects our perception of its literary quality, since romance is associated with women readers and writers. If Pride and Prejudice is as well written as, say, Anna Karenina, they why are fans of the one considered sillier than fans of the other? To what extent do they seem unserious because of their practices (dressing up in Regency costumes at conventions, sighing over the attractions of male characters), and to what extent is it because, as Johnson notes, “we now live in a cultural environment when it can be assumed that literature written by women is literature written for women” (213), and a female readership is considered less prestigious than a male readership? Or to what extent are these two possibilities related?

3. Analyze pleasure.

If students feel comfortable admitting that they enjoy reading romances, they can turn a critical lens on their enjoyment. Radway herself points out that her study is not a comprehensive overview of romance readers (48-9). It is also, by now, dated. Students who enjoy romance themselves can respond to Reading the Romance by offering their own answers to the questions Radway asks the women in her study, extending its scope. Because Radway studied housewives, for example, many of her explanations for romance [End Page 15] reading revolve around homemakers’ needs and concerns. But if full-time college students read for reasons similar to those of Radway’s housewives (escapism, for instance), then what other explanations can they offer? What does pleasurable reading accomplish for them, and how do these ends differ from the ends accomplished through critical reading?

Beyond student responses, it can be useful to analyze other groups of avid romance readers. Web sites such as The Republic of Pemberley (Austen fans) or Smart Bitches, Trashy Books are rich in reader responses to and analyses of romances.

4. Give air-time to both sides of the debate.

Few, if any, teachers have a pedagogical style that is neutral, whether they work from the conviction that romance is “disadvantageous to women” or that romance is unfairly maligned for its association with femininity. But when a genre is as widely-read and as provoking in its gender politics as romance is, we need to recognize that there are multiple ways to look at it. Students may have highly emotional responses to romance, whether because they cherish it deeply or because they feel it has harmed them. And teachers should make room for these varying positions, perhaps even by modeling them. During the romance unit in “Women and Literature,” I often open a class session by flip-flopping on the position I expressed in the previous class, sometimes in response to student online posts that jumped on the last class’s bandwagon. My own preference is to keep students guessing about where my bandwagon is headed, but it can also be effective to make it clear that there are multiple bandwagons to jump on, whether or not they are embraced by the instructor.

5. Teachers who like romances (or who admire people who do) should admit it.

If you happen to enjoy romances, admitting it need not compromise your ability to critique them. (I point out to students that in addition to reading romance novels, I also consume enormous quantities of butter, which I am reasonably certain is not good for me.) If you wish you could blend romance and suspense like novelist Mary Stewart, say so. If your friend the feminist biochemist is addicted to soap operas, say that too. If romance is the top-selling genre of fiction, then students who admit to reading it should not need to do so “reluctantly and with hesitant laughter.” Romance reading is so widespread that even those who don’t partake in it usually know and respect someone who does: in discussing romance, one student writes, “all I could think about was how my mother and grandmother would feel.” A feminist literature classroom shouldn’t ignore these thoughts, but should be attentive to the reading habits of our mothers, our grandmothers, our friends, and ourselves.

There are a wide variety of romances out there. Readers who have no patience for misogynist “Old Skool” punishing kisses or drugstore Harlequins may find that they not only admire the narrative structure of Jane Eyre, but also enjoy, just a little bit, Jane and Rochester’s jousting repartee. If this describes you, say so, even if you still have reservations (Jane Eyre, for one, offers fodder aplenty for these). It’s easiest to encourage others to be open about their varied reading experiences if you go first. [End Page 16]

 In Conclusion

First the disclaimers. I don’t by any means wish to devalue academic literary reading practices, on which I have built a career. Nor do I wish to deny the misogynistic elements in romance fiction, or that some romances and romance subgenres are particularly ugly in this regard. I acknowledge the existence of very, very badly written romance novels, and I don’t believe that the distinction between high- and low-culture literature is entirely based on sexism (although I have been persuaded that it is partly so). I am willing to accept that there may be readers, some of them maybe even students in my classes, who consume romance for the self-defeating purposes that Radway describes.

But I also believe, strongly, that most of my students are savvier than that—particularly those who are already fluent, or aspiring toward fluency, in the feminist critical convictions that inspire scholars like Radway and Goodwin. And while some of them may be unable to reconcile loving both romance and feminist criticism, others may find that they can—even if sometimes they feel (understandably) that these two loves conflict.

Further, years of discussions with students about their reading have convinced me that English teachers owe a debt to popular fiction genres, including romance, for their entry-level recruiting: for providing easy-to-read texts that capitalize on the lure of popular typologies, books that help readers develop the fluencies that allow them to approach other books. If I believe we should criticize romances, I also think we should be grateful to them.

And for all that we see—accurately—as wrong in the romance, we should also suppose—humbly—that some of its appeal might be in its rightness. If we believe in the capacity of our students to distinguish between goods and evils, then we should open ourselves to appreciating the books that they appreciate—and assist them in turning an eye on their appreciation that is both critical and open-minded. As we do this, it cannot hurt to remember how often love is a positive force in human endeavor, whether it be romantic love for other people, or readerly love for the stories they tell.

[1] Marshall cites book club/group studies by Janice Radway and Michael Smith.

[2] See for example Goodwin (234, 238-9), Tan and Wendell (20), and Regis, who calls Reading the Romance “the single most influential work on the romance novel” (5).

[3] This claim should be liberally qualified. Rapist romances are still out there. Further, Wendell and Tan suggest that the rape of the heroine may only “have shifted focus; instead of violating the heroine’s hoo hoo, rape may be visited instead on her will. This sort of metaphorical breach is especially pervasive in paranormal romances, in which heroines are often changed or transformed without their consent, even against their express wishes, by the hero” (25)

[4] Statistics are not as available for other countries. The Romance Writers of Australia report that out of “10 million books sold each year in the UK… seven million are romance novels,” but do not cite a source for this information.

[5] This reader’s list of romance heroines’ features doesn’t entirely match that of the ideal romance heroine as described by Radway and her readers, whose most valued traits are intelligence, independence, and a sense of humor (77), not patience and shyness. Both this student’s and Radway’s heroines are conventionally beautiful and virginal, however (132). [End Page 17]

[6] The Harlequin Desire hero, for instance, is a “powerful and wealthy hero—an alpha male with a sense of entitlement, and sometimes arrogance,” and Harlequin Medical heroes are “top-notch docs, hot-shot surgeons,” not nurses.

[7] More broadly, it has been defined by the model of those in power: not only male but white, heterosexual, etc.

[8] In this discussion of how the quality of a genre is associated with its masculinity, I’ve focused on the romance plot, but even diction preferences arguably carry gender biases. Scholarship on Frankenstein shows that Mary Shelley’s simpler prose suits our own contemporary tastes more than her husband Percy’s Latinate revisions of her manuscript, through which Percy displays an education that was unavailable to women of the Shelleys’ time (Mellor 162-3). Perhaps we like our writing dumbed down now. Or perhaps our period is merely different in its tastes than the Shelleys’, and simplicity (“Do not overwrite,” and “Avoid fancy words,” as Strunk and White advise [72, 76]) is now prized by educated men, and therefore desirable.

[9] It is important to note that men are not the only offenders here. Although most of the fan-disparaging Austen scholars whom Johnson cites are men, some are women. As Gayatri Spivak has noted, a person who belongs to multiple identity groups may well choose to speak from the perspective of the group in power (for example, “The subordinated gender following the dominant within the challenge of nationalism while remaining caught within gender oppression is not an unknown story” [2119]). A person who is both female and an accredited scholar may thus be likely to speak from a scholarly perspective, even if that perspective disparages women. If male scholars elevate themselves above other men by suggesting that those men’s reading practices are womanish, we might expect female scholars to avoid those same practices to demonstrate that they, true scholars, are not that kind of women. [End Page 18]

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Vivien Jones. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.

—. Northanger Abbey. Ed. Marilyn Butler. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Women’s Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Jenny Crusie. n.p., 2012. Web. 23 February 2014.

Dugger, Julie M. Women and Literature in North America and Europe. Western Washington University, Fall 2012-Winter 2014. Web. 23 February 2014.

Goodwin, Sarah Webster. “Romance and Change: Teaching the Romance to Undergraduates.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. 3.1-2 (1997): 233-41. Print.

Graff, Gerald. “Disliking Books at an Early Age.” Falling Into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: Bedford Books, 1994. 36-43. Print.

Harlequin: entertain, enrich, inspire. Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., n.d. Web. 23 February, 2014.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.

Johnson, Claudia. “Austen Cults and Cultures.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 211-26. Print.

Linkon, Sherry. Literary Learning: Teaching in the English Major. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2011. Print.

Marshall, James. “Closely Reading Ourselves: Teaching English and the Education of Teachers.” Preparing a Nation’s Teachers: Models for English and Foreign Language Programs. Ed. Phyllis Franklin, David Lawrence, and Elizabeth B. Welles. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1999. 380-89. Print.

Mellor, Anne K. “Choosing a Text of Frankenstein to Teach.” Frankenstein: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1996. 160-66. Print.

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2006. Print.

Peronto, Kelsey. “A Feminist Response to Fifty Shades of Grey.” Associated Students of Western Washington University Women’s Center. Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA. 7 November 2012. Lecture.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, with a New Introduction by the Author. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print.

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

Robens, Myretta. The Republic of Pemberley. n.p., 2012. Web. 9 September 2013.

Romance Writers of Australia. Romance Writers of Australia, Inc., 2013. Web. 9 September 2013.

Scott, Judy. Romance Writers of America. Romance Writers of America, n.d. Web. 9 September 2013. [End Page 19]


Genre, Author, Text, Reader: Teaching Nora Roberts’s Spellbound
by Beth Driscoll


Teaching popular romance fiction in the university is a sharp reminder of the importance of the syllabus in shaping society-wide notions of literary value. As Pierre Bourdieu explains, educational institutions legitimise specific literary texts by cultivating familiarity with and appreciation of them (Field 121). The omission of popular romance fiction from the literary studies syllabus judges the legitimacy of romance, but it also has far-reaching consequences for the formation of students’ reading practices. Educational institutions promote particular attitudes towards reading and the “pursuit of culture” (Field 233). The cultural capital, or cultural competencies, that universities provide for [End Page 1] students reflects this twofold role: universities confer qualifications that guarantee a student’s familiarity with legitimate culture and also foster long-lasting beliefs about literature over years of training in literary studies (“Forms” 87). The effects of the exclusion of popular romance fiction from the university curriculum are that students actively resist these texts and do not have the required skills to read and understand them.

My own reading experiences illustrate this process. As an undergraduate, I didn’t study romance fiction. I was intellectually excited about modernism and postmodernism, and learned to appreciate older canonical texts. While I was immersed in learning about high literature, my mother and my sister were reading Nora Roberts. After I completed my PhD in literary studies, I finally took them up on their reading recommendations and became obsessed: I read 32 of Roberts’s novels while on maternity leave.

My conversion to Roberts was accelerated through my involvement in teaching an undergraduate literary studies subject at the University of Melbourne. The subject Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction was developed by Ken Gelder. I tutored in the subject in 2006 and 2007, and since 2008 have given a number of its lectures, including one on Roberts. My current position as a lecturer in the Publishing and Communications program at the University of Melbourne informs my approach to teaching popular romance fiction; in addition to my longstanding interest in texts, my current research investigates the production, dissemination and reception of books in contemporary culture.

This article responds to Lisa Fletcher’s call to use writing about teaching practice as a “launch pad for interrogating more deeply the place of popular romance studies in higher education” (“Scholarship”). It begins by briefly outlining Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction’s overarching pedagogical approach: its objectives, syllabus and assessment. The second section summarizes my lecture on Roberts and her novel Spellbound. Finally, I consider students’ responses by reporting on a survey I undertook in 2013 on the experience of studying Spellbound. While a single subject cannot transform a lifetime of educational indoctrination about the kind of literature worth valuing, Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction aims to challenge students’ preconceptions and to open up avenues for them to think critically about popular romance.

The subject: description, objectives and structure

The unit description for Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction is as follows:

This subject takes popular fiction as a specific field of cultural production. Students will analyse various definitive features of that field: popular fiction’s relations to “literature,” genre and identity, gender and sexuality, the role of the author profile, cinematic and TV adaptations, readerships and fan interests, and processing venues. The subject is built around a number of genres: crime fiction, science fiction, horror, romance, the “sex and shopping” novel, the thriller and the blockbuster. On completion of the subject students should be familiar with some important genres of popular fiction, and some representative examples of each genre and have a developed sense of the role of popular fiction in the broader field of cultural production. [End Page 2]

So the subject is organized along two lines of enquiry. It raises large questions about popular fiction and its relationship with what Gelder describes as Literature with a capital L (11), and it also offers more focused analysis of a range of popular fiction genres. Romance fiction was first incorporated into the syllabus in 2007, when Spellbound was added. In 2013 Charlaine Harris’ first Sookie Stackhouse novel was also included to diversify the presentation of romance. The texts are taught in chronological order, and in 2013 the syllabus was:

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  • The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells)
  • The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)
  • A Murder is Announced (Agatha Christie)
  • Dr No (Ian Fleming),
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick)
  • The Stud (Jackie Collins)
  • Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
  • Spellbound (Nora Roberts)
  • The Litigators (John Grisham)
  • Dead Until Dark (Charlaine Harris)

The subject is taught to second- and third-year students, and enrolments for the subject are usually around 120. The teaching pattern comprises a 90-minute lecture, followed by small group tutorials in which students discuss the set text and associated readings in the subject reader.

At the end of semester, student must complete a long essay of 2,500 words that compares two texts, worth 60% of their final mark. An earlier essay of 1,500 words is due mid-semester and must address one of the first four texts studied, so students cannot write about romance for this task. A class presentation forms the basis of one of the essays. The topics for the long essays are comparative and broadly framed. Gelder’s task outline includes this advice: “A good essay outlines significant critical positions and engages with them; it also looks closely at passages or scenes from the novels themselves, of course, and you will have to make decisions about what you’ll look at here, and why.” Topics that allow students to write about Spellbound include:

  • comparing Spellbound with The Stud as examples of romance and “anti-romance” fiction;
  • comparing Spellbound with Dead Until Dark as examples of supernatural romance fiction;
  • writing about heroes in two novels;
  • writing about heroines in two novels;
  • writing about popular fiction and genre;
  • writing about popular fiction and literary style; and
  • writing about popular fiction and characterization.

The genre-based approach taken by this subject has, inevitably, both strengths and limitations. Arguably, the subject ghettoises popular fiction and each of its genres, obscuring what romance has in common with other genres and with Literature. Students [End Page 3] sometimes object to drawing a strict demarcation between Literature and popular fiction, or between genres (such as science fiction and fantasy), and it can be useful to remind them that examining the stability of these categorisations while acknowledging their effects is an important critical skill developed through the subject. Other students are very aware of the difference between genre fiction and Literature, and sometimes complain about the lack of literary features in texts such as The Stud: a student once told me the subject should be called “ShitLit.”

Teaching popular romance as one genre amongst many is perhaps an older model of approaching romance (see Goris). Some recent scholarship models other ways of teaching popular romance texts. For example, Lisa Fletcher, Rosemary Gaby and Jennifer Kloester use an “embedded” approach, where a romance novel is taught alongside more literary texts. An Goris argues for a “focused and differential approach,” that draws out the variety within the romance genre. Teaching according to genre, however, can be done in a nuanced way that addresses the dangers of simplification and generalisation. Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction, for example, includes two different romance texts as well as an anti-romance, or “sex-and-shopping,” novel. This variety allows intra-genre distinctions and subtleties to emerge. Even within the week on Roberts, students are taught not only about romance fiction as a genre but also about the specific details of Roberts’s career and of Spellbound as a text, which are in some ways typical and in other ways atypical of the genre.

The genre-based approach also has particular advantages. Focusing on the genre of romance allows discussion from a publishing studies perspective, of romance’s place at the cutting-edge of digital- and self-publishing developments. This introduces a new theoretical framework for students, broadening conventional literary studies by insisting on the relevance of the social and economic contexts of contemporary texts. Looking at how romance as a genre has been dismissed by the academy also allows students to be self-reflexive, drawing upon Bourdieu. Students are invited by this subject to feel estranged from romance, to confront their own ignorance of the phenomenon, to think about what has been excluded from their education, and why, and what limitations this might produce in their ability to engage with contemporary culture. Pedagogically, this subject challenges students to think reflexively about what textual qualities they have been taught to value. When they say a book is “good” or “bad”, what criteria are they using and what assumptions are they making? Students find this line of discussion confronting, but it equips them to be more thorough and careful in their literary criticism, and more aware of the broader context of cultural production that surrounds their experience in academia.

Lecture summary

Before the lecture, students are asked to read the set text, Spellbound, and two scholarly book chapters: “The Institutional Matrix: Publishing Romantic Fiction” from Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature and “One Man, One Woman: Nora Roberts” from Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel. The lecture has three broad aims: to introduce the genre of romance fiction, to describe the career of Roberts, and to model some close reading of Spellbound’s setting and its depiction of gender roles.[2] [End Page 4]

I begin the lecture with some dramatic statistics about Roberts. She has published over 200 novels, including 180 New York Times bestsellers, and releases six new titles a year. There are 400 million copies of her books in print, and over the last 30 years, an average of 27 of her books have been sold every minute. Roberts, I want them to know, is a big deal.

Then I summarise some of the judgements made about romance fiction which position it as anti-literary. Romance is cast as formulaic. It is dismissed as being read passively by women looking for a mindless distraction. Romance is also heavily commercialised. The lecture then works through these positions and complicates them.

The “romance formula” is a familiar idea for students. A number of writers have presented their own versions of this formula, and as Eric Selinger observes, a formula can be an effective pedagogical tool to prompt discussion and enable comparisons across different novels. Formulae range in complexity. A simple version is presented by Canadian romance writer Deborah Hale on her blog: ((H + h) x A) ÷ C + HEA = R. In this formulation, H and h= Hero and heroine, A= Attraction, C= Conflict, HEA= Happy Ever After and R is Romance. Despite the apparent reductiveness of this formula, Hale emphasises that each of these abstractions can be filled by a multitude of different possibilities: “The hero could be anything from a medieval knight to a Navy SEAL to a sexy werewolf. The heroine could be a bluestocking governess, a fashionista or a single mom … romance writers can produce an infinite number of unique combinations.” This formula recognises the central elements of romance and its potential diversity.

Janice Radway’s 13-step formula (Reading 134), by contrast, is extremely specific. Presenting this can be humorous, as students realize how much of a romance plot is “scripted,” but it also tracks some of the complex and dynamic relationships that run through romance novels. Pamela Regis’ 8-step formula, recognized by Eric Selinger as a “Middle Way” between the simplistic and complex, is also valuable to share with students. This part of the lecture confirms that popular romance novels can be formulaic and acknowledges conventionality (particularly the happy ending) as part of the appeal of the genre. At the same time, the lecture invites students to see formulae as available analytical devices that illuminate some of the concerns of the genre.

The lecture next explores the idea that romance fiction is escapism for women. Students in this subject have already encountered Andreas Huyssen’s “Mass Culture as a Woman: Modernism’s Other” (from After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture Postmodernism) which argues that the proto-modernist Flaubert creates, through his character Emma Bovary, a dichotomy between woman as the emotional, passive reader of inferior literature and man as the objective, ironic and active writer of authentic literature. A Flaubertian view of female romance readers is evident in Germaine Greer’s feminist critique in The Female Eunuch, which argues that the fantasies women encounter in romance fiction negatively affect their real life relationships: “Although romance is essentially vicarious the potency of the fantasy distorts actual behaviour” (203). For this reason, Greer attacks the depiction of the romance hero as strong, successful and powerful: “The traits invented for him have been invented by women cherishing the chains of their bondage” (202). In this feminist reading, readers of romance fiction contribute to their own subordination in patriarchal culture.

One way to complicate the second-wave feminist attack on romance is through Janice Radway’s 1984 study of romance readers, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy [End Page 5] and Popular Literature. This work differs from critical perspectives such as Greer’s because it incorporates the views of readers themselves. This is a point where there is a close nexus between my teaching and my research, which also involves paying attention to how readers participate in literary culture (Driscoll). Following Radway’s interviews with readers in the town of “Smithton,” she suggests that romance fiction can operate as a way for women to cope with their real predicaments and the demands made of them: a small-scale “protest.” Romance reading is not so much escapism, as a (temporary) act of refusal (Reading 211). Radway’s study restores agency to romance readers: they emerge as active and strategic participants in culture, not mindless consumers.[3]

The final view of romance to complicate is that it is heavily industrialised. It is undeniable that romance is big business: 35-40 percent of all global mass market paperback sales are romances. In 2011, romance was worth $1.36 billion – double or triple the market for science fiction, fantasy or mystery. I show students the websites of Mills and Boon and Harlequin to explore the way these companies market romance texts: we consider the types of formats for sale, the ways readers are drawn in through book clubs, forums and special offers, and, most of all, through the proliferation of subgenres. Subgenres standardise the production and consumption of romance fiction: readers can subscribe to a subgenre of a publisher and have new titles delivered/downloaded periodically. Readers know what to expect and publishers know how many they can sell.

This sophisticated industrial machinery can create a sense that romance fiction is writerless and that it is consumed rather than read in any meaningful way. For example, Ken Worpole writes that

there is a strong sense that the main problem about the romantic novel is that under heavy commercial pressures, it has become over-determined and over-conventionalized … Certainly the prolific output of some writers in the genre confirms this view that once the setting has been chosen, the characters assembled and named, the novels more or less write themselves (qtd. in Gelder 44).

However, the industrialisation of romance is complicated by the genre’s simultaneous creation of personal connections amongst readers and writers. A high level of (mediated) intimacy characterises the romance community. Many romance writers nurture close relationships with their fans, often through active websites. To illustrate this point, I show students Roberts’s website,, which also functions as an introduction to her as an author. Under the menu item, “About Nora,” a section titled “Up Close and Personal” offers a humorous, intimate biography. It begins by describing Roberts’s life as a stay-at-home mother: “I macramed two hammocks,” she admits now, “I needed help.” After a blizzard led to “endless games of Candy Land and a severe lack of chocolate,” she began to “look for a little entertainment that was not child-related. She took out a notebook and started to write down one of the stories she’d made up in her head.” This presentation of Roberts’s story vividly personalizes her and forges connections with her likely readers.

These website analyses lead to a discussion of another industry practice: digital publishing. Romances titles dominate ebook bestseller lists, and Roberts has a strong presence in digital sales: she was the third author to sell more than a million books for the Kindle. Romance publishing is moving online: two out of every five romances bought in the [End Page 6] fourth quarter of 2011 were ebooks. E. L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey began life as a piece of online fan fiction before becoming an ebook bestseller, then securing a print publishing deal and becoming a hard copy bestseller. At this point I open the lecture up to a discussion, asking students why they think romance titles seem to be a particularly good fit for digital publishing. Most students realise that ebooks neutralise the social stigma of reading romance fiction—no one can see what you’re reading on your Kindle or iPad. Other suggested reasons for the popularity of digital romance include the ability to instantly purchase and download new titles, to store large numbers of texts, to access more of the backlist, and to try self-publishing.

The second section of the lecture concentrates on Roberts as an author. Roberts began writing category romances for Silhouette, Harlequin’s US imprint, in 1981. Her work is often adapted for TV (the Lifetime channel) but not for film. She publishes six new titles each year: two J.D. Robb crime novels, two trade paperbacks (parts of a trilogy or quartet), one hardcover (released in summer, “the big Nora”) and one mass market title or novella (often also a J. D. Robb story). Throughout the subject students have learnt that popular fiction writers work at a different pace to literary authors. They often write one novel a year, like John Grisham, rather than one every ten years, like Jonathan Franzen. However, Roberts’s pace is dramatically faster than the other popular fiction authors they have studied and her level of output is often challenging for students to comprehend.

I discuss the different formats Roberts writes in, beginning with her recent “Inn at Boonsboro” trilogy. One of the engaging features of this trilogy is that it is set at the real life Bed and Breakfast owned by Roberts, in the town of Boonsboro where she lives, and features other real businesses owned by her family members such as the Turn the Pages bookshop. I ask students what might be going on here: why would an already wealthy author write a fictional book about her real world business? Cross-merchandising seems too simplistic an answer, although that is undeniably part of it: for example, the online store at sells the themed toiletries that appear in the novels and are used in the Inn. I suggest that the novels romanticise her business: the first line of the first book in the trilogy, The Next Always, reads, “The stone walls stood as they had for more than two centuries, simple, sturdy, and strong. Mined from the hills and the valleys…” (1). Becoming a setting for a romance novel has imbued this building with emotion. This halo effect extends to the town of Boonsboro: there’s a romanticising of the small-town mythology of America at work in these novels, a celebration of a particular ideal of American life.

The “Inn at Boonsboro” trilogy uses the genre conventions of romance to blur the lines between reading, tourism and the lived experience of Roberts and her family. Roberts clearly uses genre in some deft and creative ways. Her ability to manipulate genre conventions is showcased through the 40 plus books of the “In Death” series, penned as J. D. Robb. This series participates in multiple genres, the most obvious of which is crime fiction. In each book Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her team solve a homicide case. The covers use dark colours and bold graphics, with the gender-neutral pseudonym prominently featured. Crime is a genre of popular fiction with more prestige than romance, and more male readers, so this genre-based marketing extends Roberts’s audience. Crime genre conventions influence characterisation in these books, particularly Dallas and her police colleagues, and there are crime logics at work in the telling of the stories: lots of hard work, danger, exhaustion and strong, black coffee. The books are also futuristic science fiction, as the series begins in the year 2058. While there is no world-changing “novum” such as [End Page 7] nuclear apocalypse, there are a host of playful details that add interest to the setting: cars that travel vertically, “auto-chefs” that cook for you, droids as servants and pets and off-planet locations for prisons and theme parks. The science fiction setting also assists in the plotting—less research into crime scene investigation methods or forensic science is necessary when Roberts can talk about “sealing up” in a vague but intriguing way. Science fiction tropes sometimes provide plots: Creation in Death is about cloning, while Fantasy in Death involves murder by hologram video game. The science fiction elements also facilitate some social commentary: for example, guns are banned and the police instead use “stunners.”

Underneath these genres, however, the books follow the core conventions of romance. The narrative drive of the series is the developing relationship between Dallas and the sexy, dangerous Irish billionaire Roarke. There are at least three sex scenes between them in most of the novels. Roarke is a classic romance hero: tall and rangy, with long, dark hair, a face with “strong, sharp bones and seductive poet’s mouth” (Reunion 5), “the wisp of Ireland magical in his voice” (Vengeance 10). He is a reformed criminal and wealthy businessman who nurtures Dallas emotionally and practically, by providing meals and medical care and encouraging her to sleep. Dallas and Roarke are married by the third book in the series, but Roberts maintains interest in their relationship by focusing on their shared psychological journey as survivors of childhood abuse. With each novel, they confront and overcome reminders of their past trauma, and their mutually-supported healing forms a spanning narrative across the series.

Not only do the “In Death” books combine several genres, but also Roberts plays the genres against each other, often for comic effect. For example, Dallas’s tough cop persona means that she must show discomfort with Roarke’s romantic gestures, including the beautiful clothes and jewellery he buys her. However, Roberts” combination of genres is not postmodern. It’s unironic: there is no sense of parody or pastiche. We might characterize Roberts’s approach as “more is more” as she builds a blockbuster super-genre. An illustrative scene occurs in Fantasy in Death when Dallas and Roarke test a holographic video game that offers a time travel experience to players, allowing them to experience various historical eras in a realistic way. The game play begins in science fiction mode: “He slid [the disc] into a slot as he spoke, used both palm plate and retinal scan, added a voice command and several manual ones” (Fantasy 106) then the tone shifts as the game begins: “With barely a shimmer this time, she stood on a green hill, her hair long and tied back. She wore, as Roarke did, some sort of leather top that hit mid-thigh and snug pants that slid into the tops of boots” (107). This is “Ireland, Tudor era” (107): “She turned back to him and didn’t he look amazing with all that black hair blowing in the wind, in that scarred leather and with a bright sword in his hand. ‘I won’t be calling time-out.’ She lifted her sword. ‘Let’s play’” (Fantasy 108). The narrative device of the hyper-realistic video game allows Roberts to insert a scene like the ones she writes in Spellbound, of ancient combat in a mystical landscape, into a futuristic crime thriller. She provides the pleasures of multiple genres in one reading experience.

The final part of the lecture reads the set text, the novella Spellbound, which students are now equipped to approach using a range of critical frameworks. Spellbound has a varied publishing history. It was first published in 1998 as a short story in Jove’s collection Once Upon a Castle, and then released as a standalone mass-market title in 2005 with a price point of US$2.99. The endmatter of this edition describes the 81-page novella [End Page 8] as one of a series of “hotshots,” “six quick reads from your favourite bestselling authors.” Spellbound is also available in two other formats: as a 2-in-1 with Roberts’s Ever After and as an ebook for US$2.99. Spellbound participates in the subgenre of paranormal romance, incorporating supernatural elements such as witches, wizards and magic spells.

The Irish setting of the novella offers a productive analytical pathway. Spellbound has a heavy investment in Ireland’s romantic landscape. Roberts has Irish heritage, and frequently creates Irish settings and characters in her writing. In Spellbound, she constructs Ireland as a place of mystery, myth, possibility and enchantment. Calin Farrell, the hero, begins the novel in New York and flies to Ireland to address a deeply felt but inarticulate yearning. In Ireland, Calin meets Bryna, a young witch who lives alone in a cottage at the foot of a ruined castle. Bryna has been waiting for Calin: she knows that they are reincarnations of lovers from 1000 years ago, a warrior and a witch, who were separated by the wizard Alisdair when he accused Bryna of being unfaithful and killed Calin in battle. Bryna’s mission in the novella is to convince Calin of the truth of this story in time for him to battle Alisdair again, one day after he arrives in Ireland: only true love between Bryna and Calin will enable Calin to win. Calin is immediately attracted to Bryna, but his twofold task in the novel is to accept the supernatural story and to commit himself fully to her.

Like Calin, readers of Spellbound travel to a world removed from the everyday, a mystical world of fields, mists, stags, forests and castles. At points, the novella reads like a tourist advertisement for this mythologised Ireland. Halfway through the novel, Bryna soliloquises on Ireland as a “dreaming place”:

“We’re proud of our dreamers here. I would show you Ireland, Calin. The bank where the columbine grows, the pub where a story is always waiting to be told, the narrow lane flanked close with hedges that bloom with red fuschia. The simple Ireland.”

Tossing her hair back, she turned to him. “And more. I would show you more. The circle of stones where power sleeps, the quiet hillock where the faeries dance of an evening, the high cliff where a wizard once ruled. I would give it to you, if you’d take it” (47).

This, clearly, is not the Ireland of poverty, alcoholism and sectarian violence. Rather, it is the Ireland of postcards, an Ireland likely to appeal to those who have yet to visit the country.[4] In Spellbound, the escapist imperative of romance fiction is built not just into the romance plot, but into its setting, which is an imaginative space of alternative possibilities. It is also an emotionally charged landscape. Roberts’s descriptions of place contribute to the affective impact of her story, as natural features stand in for the passions of her characters. Consider Calin’s first view of the castle above Bryna’s home:

The ruined castle came into view as he rounded the curve. … Perched on a stony crag, it shouted with power and defiance despite its tumbled rocks.

Out of the boiling sky, one lance of lightning speared, exploded with light, and stung the air with the smell of ozone.

His blood beat thick, and an ache, purely sexual, began to spread through his belly (11). [End Page 9]

In this tightly written novella, no words are wasted. All the prose is geared towards providing emotional satisfaction for the reader.

A second way to approach Spellbound is through its depiction of gender. One of the key differences between this novel and the majority of romance fiction is that it is written largely from the perspective of the hero. Like the Irish setting, a focus on male characters is a characteristic of many of Roberts’s novels. As the “bio” on her website notes:

Through the years, Nora has always been surrounded by men. Not only was she the youngest in her family, but she was also the only girl. She has raised two sons. Having spent her life surrounded by men, Ms. Roberts has a fairly good view of the workings of the male mind, which is a constant delight to her readers. It was, she’s been quoted as saying, a choice between figuring men out or running away screaming.

The female focus of much romance fiction reflects the genre’s historical association with the rise of companionate marriage in the late eighteenth century (Regis 57). The heroine is typically the protagonist because her choices determine the marriage that takes place at the novel’s end. Spellbound reflects some of the changes in gender relations between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. In this story, Bryna pursues Calin. She knows that she is destined to be with him – “they were meant to be lovers. This much she believed he would accept” (16). It is Calin who must make the choice to accept her offer of love. He is effectively seduced by Bryna in the novel, and this places him in a feminised position. We see this most clearly in the passage where Cal begins to worry that Bryna might be an obsessed fan who has drugged him:

Cal awoke to silence. His mind circled for a moment, like a bird looking for a place to perch. Something in the tea, he thought. God, the woman had drugged him. He felt a quick panic as the theme from Stephen King’s Misery played in his head (18).

Bryna has taken control here, and Calin feels threatened and disoriented. If a heroine were placed in a similar position to Calin, this scene would invoke the heroine’s fear of rape. Calin may be the protagonist but Bryna has power, and in Roberts’s writing, this reversal of typical romance gender roles becomes enjoyably comic. When Calin asks Bryna why she stripped him and put him to bed, Bryna retorts, “Oh Cal, you have a most attractive body. I’ll not deny I looked. But in truth, I’m after preferring a man awake and participating when it comes to the matters you’re thinking of” (23).

Despite these shifts in the roles of heroine and hero, most aspects of the novel fulfill the genre expectations of conventional romance fiction. Calin is handsome, wealthy and famous: “He was thirty, a successful photographer who could name his own price, call his own shots” (7). Bryna, despite her sexual forwardness, has some conservatively feminine qualities. Much attention is placed on her domestic skills and the clean, welcoming cottage she has created. She even spins her own wool. Calin’s reaction to this validates traditional female labour, even as it carefully avoids offending more modern female readers. Roberts writes, from Calin’s perspective: “Most of the women he knew couldn’t even sew on a [End Page 10] button. He’d never held the lack of domesticity against anyone, but he found the surplus of it intriguing in Bryna” (33). So Spellbound plays with some gender conventions of the genre by allowing the heroine to be sexually proactive, but other conventions are left intact.

Student responses

To explore the effects of this lecture on students, I prepared an online survey through the free service SurveyMonkey which I announced in the lecture and in a follow-up email. This survey comprised nine multiple choice and open-ended questions and took about five minutes to complete. Twenty students responded from a total enrolment of 120 students, a response rate of 17 percent. This low level of participation in the survey means that the results should not be read as reflecting the experience or viewpoints of all students in the subject. The respondents were self-selecting, which may have introduced a bias towards those who were already interested in Roberts or romance. Eighty-five percent of respondents were female, a slightly higher figure than the percentage of female students enrolled in the subject (71 percent).

The first set of questions in the survey explored students’ pre-existing familiarity with popular romance. Question 1 of the survey asked “Had you heard of Nora Roberts before you took this subject?” The purpose of this question was to assess students’ awareness of this bestselling author. Fifty percent of students answered yes, and fifty percent no. This indicates that many students lack knowledge not only of romance fiction but of commercial fiction: Roberts is an author prominently displayed in bookshops and frequently mentioned on bestseller lists, for example, but has not been consciously noticed by many university students.

Question 2 asked “Had you read any novels by Nora Roberts before taking this subject?” If the answer was yes, students were prompted to identify which ones. Only three respondents (15 percent) had read any novels by Roberts before taking the subject. One was evidently a genuine fan, having read “Northern Lights, Jewels of the Sun, Tears of the Moon, Heart of the Sea, Valley of Silence, Dance of the Gods, Morrigans Cross, a few from the “In Death” series. Probably more but I cannot recall the titles.” Another had read Northern Lights, and another had read “One of her JD Robb novels.” A fourth student noted that they “hadn”t read any but my mum is an avid reader of her novels.”

Question 3 broadened the inquiry by asking “Had you read any romance novels before taking this subject?” Eight students (40 percent of respondents) had previously read a romance novel. The question followed up with, “If yes which ones?” The titles nominated by students included “Nicholas Evans and Rachael Treasure novels,” “Louise Bagshawe – The devil you know” and “I’m a big fan of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter series, Rachel Gibson’s novels, and Fiona Walker’s ‘Well Groomed’.” The specificity of these answers suggests that these students may belong to fan communities of romance, with a high level of knowledge of the genre. One student wrote “Jane Austen novels,” which showed insight into the history of romance fiction. Another reported reading “anything available on the op shop[5] shelves—historical romance, Collins … I never paid attention until I read A Woman of Substance!” This response begins with a generalised conception of romance fiction and [End Page 11] one of its primary purchase locations (the op shop), before moving on to a specific author (Collins) and a particular novel to sketch a growing interest in romance fiction.

Having established students’ connections with romance fiction, I went on to ask about their experiences with the set text, looking at both enjoyment and intellectual engagement. Question 4 asked “Did you enjoy reading Spellbound?” and Question 5 asked “Did you find Spellbound interesting, from an academic perspective?” Only 20 percent of respondents said they enjoyed reading Spellbound. By contrast, 70 percent of respondents said that they did find Spellbound interesting from an academic perspective. These suggestive findings indicate that many surveyed students do not associate reading this romance text with pleasure, but that adopting a critical posture increases their comfort with the genre. The nuances and implications of these results are teased out in the responses to the later survey questions.

Question 6 asked “What did you like most about Spellbound?” The students who responded to this question fell into some discernible groups. A number of responses were ironic: one student enjoyed “When it finished,” one thought “it was so bad it was good.” Another wrote, “I did not particularly enjoy any of it, to be honest. The fact that she named her lead male ‘Calin Farrell’ was ridiculously hilarious, however.”[6] These students display something of a camp sensibility in their reading of the text. In the Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction subject, students discuss camp when they study Collins’s The Stud, so this is a mode they are familiar with by the time they encounter Spellbound.

Another group of students enjoyed the novel on its own terms. One wrote that:

It was easy and fun to read. I liked the fact that the female was in the dominant role. I actually think the writing was decent, too. It certainly wasn’t a dumb book as some would lead you to believe.

Another enjoyed the setting, “the gradual shifting perspective from the reality of life in New York to the fantastic supernatural of Ireland” and others the characters: “It was so easy to read, the characters were well defined despite the very short length of the novel.” These students take pleasure in the constitutive elements of the text: characters, setting, plot, themes and writing style.

A final group of students wrote that they enjoyed looking analytically at the text. One appreciated “Seeing a genre usually dismissed taken seriously” while another responded, “I didn’t so much enjoy the book as a book, but rather as a representation of the vast industry of romance fiction.” Three students commented specifically on the feminist aspects of the book. One wrote, “The overwhelming gender performativity astounded me, because it was written in the 90s, a decade when women were gaining independence, yet it was interesting how Bryna was so domesticated.” Another enjoyed “studying feminist critiques of it” and a third was interested in “social commentary on romance as perpetuating women’s subjugation, and why the genre remains appealing.” These students, then, did not appreciate the book as a leisure reading experience, but could value it as a text to be studied analytically (“taken seriously”) through a conceptual framework such as feminism or through its participation in industrial practices and genre conventions.

The aspects of Spellbound disliked by students also reveal much about the ways in which students approach romance. Question 7 asked, “What did you like least about Spellbound?” A cluster of responses to this question focused on stereotypes and gender [End Page 12] issues. Two students wrote “stereotypes” and “gender stereotypes,” and another disliked “the part where despite Bryna’s power, it’s Calin who can solve the problem and he did it alone while protecting her.” One response offered a more lengthy feminist critique:

I found the entire plot contrived. I believe she simply utilised the supernatural genre in order to justify the “preordained love” scenario, and to give her female lead some agency, and even that was limited as she relied upon her male hero’s confession of love in order for her powers to flourish.

A second group of responses objected to Roberts’s writing style: these students disliked “the writing style,” “poor expression and writing,” and dismissed the novella as “so poorly written.” One student linked this with the commercialization of romance fiction, criticizing the book’s “lazy writing suggesting Roberts put little or no effort into the book instead relying upon her reputation/name to sell books.”

These prose-related objections are consonant with other respondents who dislike Spellbound because of its genre conventions. One student wrote, “some parts were very cliched (which I guess is part of the romance genre). Some parts were a bit cringe-worthy, too,” while another thought the book’s “strict adherence to romance formula, just made it pretty boring with nothing much to it.” Another student wrote that “the pace in which the events of the book unfolded seemed very unrealistic to me. Also, I had never read a romance novel before but I didn’t particularly enjoy the format.” These students critique the novel using the criteria they have been taught to apply to literary texts: complexity, realism and originality. Measured against these criteria, Spellbound is a failure and students are unable to appreciate it.

In a slightly different vein, two students disliked the novel on the grounds that it was not a strong example of romance fiction. One wrote that “Considering the context, it only served to concrete the stereotypes about romance fiction that people would have had in their minds – shallow and uninteresting, whereas many romance novels have much more depth.” Another compared it unfavourably with other romance fiction and other Roberts novels:

It was extremely predictable and not at all complex like many other romance novels I’ve read. It seemed almost childish with its simplicity and I wasn’t as enraptured with the plot or characters as other Nora Roberts books or other romance novels.

Like the students who disliked romance fiction’s conventional features, these students criticize Spellbound as lacking depth and complexity. So for these respondents, romance as a genre is defensible because it can show traits that are literary – even though Spellbound doesn’t.

The survey also aimed to ascertain which critical approaches to romance were most engaging for students. Question 8 asked, “What did you find most interesting about the lecture on Spellbound?” Selected responses show a number of routes into romance that caught students’ attention. Several enjoyed learning more about the author: such as the one who was interested in “Nora Roberts” entrepreneurial relationship with her readers and her latest series set in her home town: “weird; ballsy” and the one who appreciated “The [End Page 13] parts about Nora Roberts herself (eg the website and biographical info). It was interesting to consider Roberts as the product.” Other students were interested in approaching the text from a feminist angle. One liked “the discussion about the formula of romance novels and the genre’s relationship with feminism,” and another thought that “the feminist critiques of romance novels was very interesting and fuelled lots of discussion in our tutorials.”

The largest group of students was interested in romance as a genre. One was engaged by “the critical theory behind the success of romance novels and the digitalisation of romance novels” and another by “the economy of romance fiction.” One stated that “the general background information of the romance genre was useful. I liked that it was treated as a legitimate book to study. Looking at different romance formulas was also useful.” Another student took a broader perspective on the genre: “I thought the lecture was great, it illuminated all of the problematic aspects of romance fiction and also talked about its more positive/redemptive features.”

Examined as a whole, the insights into students’ thoughts provided by this survey indicate that most respondents did not enjoy reading Spellbound: they resist Spellbound’s conventionality and depiction of gender roles, and find it lacking in qualities such as complexity, realism and depth that they appreciate in literary texts. However, these students do have a strong academic interest in romance fiction: its conventions, logics, practices and authors.


What is the place of popular romance fiction in the higher education system? This article’s account of teaching Roberts raises complicated questions about the interaction between reading for entertainment and reading for university, and the ways in which the academic context affects readers’ appreciation of different kinds of writing. Historically, texts read for enjoyment and texts studied at university have been sharply distinguished. Describing her experiences as an undergraduate, Janice Radway identifies a difference between the books she read for pleasure—“bestsellers, mysteries, cookbooks and popular nature books”—and the high literature she studied in class (A Feeling 3). Following the cultural studies turn of the twentieth-century, the study of popular culture, including genre fiction, has a more prominent place in higher education. Yet, what happens to the pleasure of reading when these texts are co-opted by academia? Radway came to enjoy reading high literary texts at university, but for her this “was always combined with an intellectual distance … my new tastes somehow failed to duplicate precisely the passion of my response to those other, suspect, supposedly transparent, popular books” (A Feeling 3). Texts that are studied as part of the university syllabus are inevitably intellectualized, and are never experienced purely as leisure. Teaching popular romance fiction at university re-situates the genre, valorizing academic readings of romance texts and obscuring what happens when such fiction is read for pleasure.

The relationship between leisure reading and academic reading is further complicated when students do not enjoy particular works of popular fiction. The survey conducted for this article showed a poor awareness of romance fiction prior to the subject and a determined refusal of its pleasures by many respondents. In this context, the [End Page 14] academic study of popular romance challenges and reframes students’ antipathy. Studying romance fiction offers students an opportunity to explicitly consider varied reading communities and hierarchies of literary value. A pedagogical presentation of romance fiction can extend students’ experience of literary culture and encourage them to reflect on their own reading and critical practices. It can open students up to the possibility of considering other literary texts as cultural products, too: further surveys of students’ experiences with other genres and texts may be illuminating in this regard. My experience of teaching Roberts has reinforced the importance of acknowledging the varying reactions students have to popular romance and of providing intellectual tools that approach romance from a number of angles, such as discussions of feminism, genre conventions and the contemporary publishing industry. These academic frameworks, while unable to fully account for the pleasures of romance, enable student readers to appreciate some of the specific social, cultural and literary qualities of the romance genre, its authors and its texts.

[1] I gratefully acknowledge the input of Ken Gelder and Claire Knowles, whose ideas and suggestions contributed to the development of this article.

[2] Both Claire Knowles and I, at various times, lectured for the subject and this section of the article reflects the collaborative nature of our lectures.

[3] Some students may be interested in engaging with critiques of Radway’s characterization of romance readers and her view that reading romance may be a substitute for social or political action (see, for example, Moore and Selinger 2012).

[4] I am indebted to Claire Knowles for this idea and phrasing.

[5] An “op shop” or opportunity shop is a store run by a charity selling secondhand goods cheaply, including secondhand books.

[6] Presumably because of the similarity with the name of the actor Colin Farrell. [End Page 15]

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature.Trans. Randal Johnson. Cambridge: Polity, 1993. Print.

———. “The Forms of Capital.” The Sociology of Education. Ed. A. R. Sadovnic. New York: Routledge, 2007. 83-96. Print.

Driscoll, Beth. “Twitter, Literary Prizes and the Conversions of Capital.” By the Book?: Contemporary Publishing in Australia. Ed. Emmett Stinson. Clayton: Monash UP, 2013. 103-119. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa, Rosemary Gaby, and Jennifer Kloester. “Pedagogy Report: Embedding Popular Romance Studies in English Units: Teaching Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.2 (2011): n. pag. Web.

Fletcher, Lisa. “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Popular Romance Studies: What is it, and Why Does it Matter?” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2013): n. pag. Web.

Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. Milton Park: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Goris, An. “Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.1 (2012): n. pag. Web.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. London: MacGibbon, 1970.

Hale, Deborah. “The Secret Formula of Romance.” Deborah Hale. 2005. Web. 21 Feb 2013.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. Print.

James, E. L. Fifty Shades of Grey. London: Arrow, 2011. Print.

Moore, Kate and Eric Selinger. “The Heroine as Reader, the Reader as Heroine: Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.2 (2012): n. pag. Web.

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

———. A Feeling for Books: The Book-Of-The-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997. Print.

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

Robb, J. D. Vengeance in Death. New York: Berkeley, 1997. Print.

———. Reunion in Death. New York: Berkley, 2002. Print.

———. Creation in Death. New York: Berkley, 2008. Print.

———. Fantasy in Death. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010. Print.

Roberts, Nora. Spellbound. New York: Jove, 2005. Print.

———. The Next Always (The Inn at Boonsboro Trilogy). New York: Berkley, 2011.

———. Spellbound & Ever After. London: Piatkus, 2012. Print.

Roberts, Nora, Jill Gregory, Ruth Ryan Langan, and Marianne Willman. Once Upon a Castle. New York: Jove, 1998. Print.

Selinger, Eric. “Rebooting the Romance: The Impact of A Natural History of the Romance Novel.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2013): n. pag. Web. [End Page 16]


The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Popular Romance Studies: What is it, and why does it matter?
by Lisa Fletcher

Since joining the editorial team of JPRS as Teaching and Learning Editor in late 2012, I have had numerous conversations with scholars about the scope and purpose of this section that have raised some important (and difficult) questions. The main questions for those who are already active in the research community of popular romance studies are very practical ones: What does an article about teaching and learning look like? My research does inform the work I’ve been doing with my students, but how can I tell if my teaching practice is significant enough to report and analyse in a public academic forum? Why should I put time and energy I would usually devote to my “real” research into writing an article on teaching and learning? For those who are already very familiar with the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education, the questions raised by this section relate to its place in JPRS. They ask: What is popular romance studies? How widely and in what disciplinary and institutional contexts does it inform teaching? What other forums are there for discussion and debate about the teaching and learning of popular romance studies? While I have found some of these questions easier to respond to than others, none of them have simple or single answers. It will, I hope, be the collective and ongoing work of contributors to the section to think through the issues such questions raise and to inspire others to join the conversation. I envision “Teaching and Learning” in JPRS as a “trading zone”[1] for the open exchange of ideas, research findings, and tools for enriching the experience of teachers and, most importantly, students in courses which examine the meaning and significance of romantic love in global popular culture.

There is as yet no readily identifiable body of work that we can call the “scholarship of teaching and learning popular romance studies.” This is not to say that the number of scholars talking and writing about the place of popular romance studies in the university classroom is yet to reach critical mass. To the contrary, JPRS decided to launch this section because of strong evidence that the teaching and learning of popular romance is already a hot topic of discussion and debate, at least for those of us based in literary and cultural studies. Existing forums for trading ideas about popular romance in the English classroom include: RomanceScholar, a listserv for “scholars and teachers of romance fiction”; the blog Teach Me Tonight: Musings on Romance Fiction from an Academic Perspective; and the [End Page 1] Resources for Teaching Popular Romance Fiction website hosted by DePaul University Professor of English  and JPRS’s Executive Editor, Eric Selinger. As this journal defines it, “popular romance studies” is a cross-disciplinary banner for scholarship about “romantic love in global popular culture, now or in the past.” While there is no question that literary studies has been to date the dominant discipline in this still emerging field, JPRS remains committed to its vision of the journal as a genuinely cross-disciplinary site where scholars with common interests from diverse disciplinary backgrounds can disseminate, build on, and critique research.

Popular romance studies and the scholarship of teaching and learning have, in fact, a lot in common. They are both broad-based areas of scholarship that resonate in different ways in particular disciplines, and whose key players see their greatest potential in cross- and interdisciplinary terms. Further, they are both relatively “new and marginal” (Huber, Balancing Acts 214) scholarly domains where experienced and new participants worry over established cultural and professional hierarchies that threaten to devalue their work. There is an abundance of evidence that scholars who pursue their research interest in love and popular culture have often done so against the prevailing view that their time would be better spent investigating more serious and weightier issues. Similarly, as Mary Taylor Huber demonstrates in her book Balancing Acts: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Academic Careers, academics whose passion for teaching inspires them to invest time and intellectual energy in the scholarship of teaching and learning (especially before achieving tenure) are often intensely aware that they do so in an academe that values research over teaching (see also Linkon; Ramsden).

In Gerald Graff’s words, “teaching has been . . .  notoriously undervalued in universities” (5). How much more intensely is this bias felt by teaching academics who focus on popular culture? Graff offers a fascinating corrective to the short-sighted and elitist orthodoxies he finds in higher education: “In a real sense, the university is itself popular culture—what else should we call an institution that serves millions if not an agent of mass popularization?” ( 21; emphasis is original). Henry Giroux also insists on the relationship between teaching and learning and popular culture:

. . . pedagogy is about the creation of a public sphere, one that brings people together in a variety of spaces to talk, exchange information, listen, feel their desires, and expand their capacities for joy, love, solidarity, and struggle. Though I do not wish to romanticise popular culture, it is precisely in its diverse spaces and spheres that most of the education that matters is taking place on a global scale. (x)

Giroux’s argument that the most active and meaningful pedagogical spaces are not managed by universities will, I am sure, be a compelling one for readers of this journal. Popular romance studies of genre fiction, for instance, have long strived to include the activities of writers, fans and readers which, in Ken Gelder’s words “is in fact academic in its own way, often concentrating on the finer details of the fiction and even working at the level of literary scholarship” (75). But what does all of this mean in practical terms for academics who take popular culture so seriously that they have made it the focus of their teaching? This is exactly the kind of thorny question I would like to see explored here. [End Page 2]

The idea of a designated “scholarship of teaching” is usually credited to Ernest Boyer, who introduced the term in his 1990 book, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (“learning” was added nearly a decade or so later). As Liz Grauerholz and John F. Zipp explain, there are numerous definitions of the scholarship of teaching and learning, but “common to most approaches is that scholars investigate and share publicly the impact that various methods have on student learning” (87). The scholarship of teaching and learning is therefore a “form of practitioner research.” In other words, it is “a practical enterprise, anchored in the concrete realities of teachers, students, and subject matter” (Hutchings and Huber, 229). As I see it, engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning is an opportunity to reflect in a sustained way on one of the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of an academic career—finding ways to help our students learn.

Following Lee S. Shulman, most proponents of the scholarship of teaching and learning argue that it must be based on the three central components “of being public (‘community property’), open to critique and evaluation, and in a form that others can build on”:

A scholarship of teaching is not synonymous with excellent teaching. It requires a kind of ‘going meta,’ in which faculty frame and systematically investigate questions related to student learning—the conditions under which it occurs, what it looks like, how to deepen it, and so forth—and do so with an eye not only to improving their own classroom but to advancing practice beyond it. (Hutchings and Shulman 13; emphasis is original)

The most common type of journal article in the scholarship of teaching and learning reports and reflects on the development, implementation, and/or outcomes of a novel approach to undergraduate teaching, typically at the individual unit or course level.[2] Such articles offer practical case studies of a particular approach to teaching and learning and employ a range of evidence to support claims about the effectiveness of course design, classroom practice, or assessment (e.g., quantitative and qualitative student evaluation data; class observations and staff reflection; analysis of student assignments; and pre- and post-test results). However, as Hutchings and Shulman suggest, teaching and learning scholarship does more than provide templates that others might adapt for their own purposes, although this is certainly one of its uses. Instead, I hope that potential contributors will use their teaching practice as a launch pad for interrogating more deeply the place of popular romance studies in higher education. Possible topics for contributions include, but are not limited to:

  • Key issues in the teaching and learning of popular romance studies
  • The research/teaching nexus and popular romance
  • Curriculum design for teaching popular romance
  • Assessment models for teaching popular romance
  • Teaching and learning popular romance in the digital age
  • Student responses to studying representations of romantic love
  • Popular romance fans as teachers and students
  • Supervising dissertations in popular romance studies [End Page 3]

Submissions to this section will be peer-reviewed in exactly the same way as those submitted for the main section of the journal. My strong feeling is that, as universities around the world increasingly require staff seeking tenure and promotion to provide high-level evidence of their success against the three categories of research, teaching and service, forums such as this will only become more important. In this regard, “Teaching and Learning” in JPRS will (although it may take some time) have a role to play in the career pathways of up-and-coming scholars.

Popular romance studies—as even the briefest perusal of the literature reveals—is not a clearly defined area of scholarship. This is, in part, because of its still-nascent interdisciplinary identity. As with any emergent field, the classroom is one of most important sites for mapping the parameters of popular romance studies, identifying and defining its key concepts (most importantly “love”), and for determining theoretical frameworks and methodologies. One of the guiding principles of the scholarship of teaching and learning is that the classroom functions as a “site of inquiry” for students and teachers. This resonates in two main ways in this context: 1. reflecting on the teaching of topics relevant to popular romance studies in this journal will add detail to the picture of what this area of study is and of what it might become; and 2. reflecting on the effectiveness of approaches to learning and teaching popular culture will build knowledge about techniques and strategies for improving student learning. “Teaching and Learning” is, to the best of my knowledge, the only academic site devoted to the publication of peer-reviewed studies of the teaching and learning of popular culture. This means, I think, that its success depends on seeing it as a work-in-progress and I welcome any and all suggestions of what the scholarship of teaching and learning popular romance studies might look like.

[1] Mary Taylor Huber and Sherwyn P. Morreale borrow Peter Gallison’s notion of a “trading zone” to describe the intellectual and professional work of SoTL: “It is in this borderland that scholars from different disciplinary cultures come to trade their wares—insights, ideas, and findings—even though the meanings and methods behind them may vary considerably among consumer groups” (“Situating the Scholarship” 2; see also Huber, Balancing Acts 219).

[2] This was the model followed for the first article published in the section under its initial banner “Pedagogy,” which I co-authored with Rosemary Gaby and Jennifer Kloester. [End Page 4]

Works Cited

Boyer, Ernest L. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning, 1990. Print.

Gelder, Kenneth. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of Literary Field. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Giroux, Henry A. Disturbing Pleasures: Learning Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Graff, Gerald. Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. Print.

Grauerholz, Liz, and John F. Zipp. “How to Do the Scholarship of Learning and Teaching.” Teaching Sociology 36.1 (2008): 87-94. ProQuest. Web. 17 April 2013.

Huber, Mary Taylor. Balancing Acts: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Academic Careers. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching/American Association for Higher Education, 2004. Print.

Huber, Mary Taylor, and Sherwyn P. Morreale. “Situating the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Cross-Disciplinary Conversation.” Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Exploring Common Ground. Ed. Huber and Morreale. Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education, 2002. Print.

Hutchings, Pat, and Mary Taylor Huber. “Placing Theory in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 7.3 (2008): 229-44. Print.

Hutchings, Pat, and Lee S. Shulman. “The Scholarship of Teaching: New Elaborations, New Developments.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 31.5 (2010): 10-15. Print. Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 18 April 2013.

Linkon, Sherry Lee. Literary Learning: Teaching the English Major. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2011. Kindle.

Ramsden, Paul. Learning to Teach in Higher Education. 1992. London: Routledge, 2003. Kindle. [End Page 5]


Pedagogy Report: Embedding Popular Romance Studies in Undergraduate English Units: Teaching Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester by Lisa Fletcher, Rosemary Gaby, and Jennifer Kloester


This paper outlines one model for introducing popular romance studies to undergraduate English programs: teaching romance texts and topics alongside canonical and contemporary literary texts. This “embedding” approach has clear advantages over the teaching of “specialist” popular romance units, not least because of its flexibility in relation to diverse curricula. We discuss one recent example of teaching popular romance—specifically, popular historical romance—at the University of Tasmania, Australia (UTAS), where the authors recently collaborated on the design and teaching of a new unit in which students read Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester alongside literary classics such as William Shakespeare’s Henry V and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. The paper explains the unit design in detail, presents the case for adopting an embedding approach to teaching popular romance fiction, describes the teaching strategies Lisa Fletcher and Jennifer Kloester used in their lectures on Heyer, and analyzes student responses to this initiative through examination of selected assessment tasks.

1. The Teaching Context: Sylvester and “Fictions of History”

In 2009 a new team-taught unit, “Fictions of History,” was introduced in the English major at UTAS; it was taught for the first time in Semester 2, 2010 (June—November) and will be offered again in Semester 2, 2011. The unit is an elective at the advanced level, aimed principally at students who have completed introductory and intermediate English; however, the prerequisite allows students who have only completed introductory (or first-year) English to enroll. “Fictions of History” was designed to:

  • build students’ knowledge of historicist approaches to analyzing literary texts;
  • encourage critical reflection on the relationship between the treatment of history in literary and popular texts; and
  • enhance skills in conducting research on a diverse range of texts.

An additional impetus for developing this unit was to facilitate collaborative teaching, which would bring together the research interests of academic staff. One common thread linking the work of the lecturers (Elizabeth Leane, Ralph Crane, Rosemary Gaby, and Fletcher) who contributed to this unit is a focus on the intersections of literature and history. At UTAS, achieving a “teaching-research nexus” is especially important at the advanced level as we seek to engage students’ interest in pursuing honors and postgraduate study. The embedding approach therefore has clear benefits for popular romance scholars (in this case, Fletcher) looking to motivate students to pursue postgraduate research, but who may not have the opportunity to teach units devoted to the field.

Unit Description

How does literature represent the past? This unit introduces students to key theoretical frameworks for interrogating the complex and contentious relationship between “fiction” and “history.” Students have the opportunity to discuss “fictions of history” from a range of historical, cultural, and national contexts. Texts will range from literary classics to popular genre fiction to postmodern tours de force. (

Required Texts (in order taught)

  • Shakespeare, William Henry V
  • Scott, Walter Ivanhoe
  • Heyer, Georgette Sylvester
  • Farrell, J. G. The Siege of Krishnapur
  • Bainbridge, Beryl The Birthday Boys

Teaching Pattern

The unit is taught over thirteen weeks. Students attend a fifty-minute lecture each week and a 90-minute weekly tutorial from the second week of semester. The bulk of lectures focus on analysis of the set texts; two lectures (delivered by Fletcher in 2010 in the 4th and 7th weeks of semester) introduce theoretical approaches to reading fictions of history.


Students in this unit are required to complete a 1000-word essay, a 2500-word essay and a 2-hour exam:

2. Teaching Popular Romance Fiction: Why Take an “Embedding” Approach?

The embedding approach to teaching popular romance fiction is based on the view that Literature and popular fiction are distinct, but interrelated fields. Ken Gelder uses the capital “L” for Literature in his book, Popular Fiction: The Logic and Practices of a Literary Field, in order to distinguish the two major sub-fields of the broader literary field. He argues “popular fiction is best conceived of as the opposite of Literature” (11). For Gelder, popular fiction and Literature are antagonistic fields; they each define themselves against the other. Gelder gives us the best starting point yet for theorizing the relationship between the popular and Literary fields of cultural production, especially when the focus of study is on particular genres. He writes: “Popular fiction is, essentially, genre fiction” (1). However, he misses the extent to which genre cuts through the curtain he brings down between, to use different terms, “lowbrow” and “highbrow” texts (Fletcher 4). The tropes and conventions of the romance genre cut across the boundaries of these cultural fields in fascinating and important ways, which the pedagogy of popular romance studies must take into account. Teaching popular romance texts alongside Literary texts can help students recognize that considering the form and function of popular romance is not a trivial pursuit with only narrow cultural relevance.[1]

Critics often speak up for the value of studying romance fiction because of the sheer, unparalleled popularity (in global terms) of the distilled or purer versions of the form—most commonly category romance novels. Readers of JPRS will recognize this argument: studying popular romance fiction is important because of the sheer magnitude of texts and readers it looks to (and respects). The embedding approach begins with a slightly different argument: Romance is relevant to students of English because it does not stop working at the boundaries of the field of popular romance fiction. Heyer is a pertinent example here. While her novels clearly participate in the popular romance genre—she is, after all, the Queen of the Regency Romance—they are both influenced by and influence texts that fall outside the strict parameters of romance. So, perhaps the first step to getting the burgeoning field of popular romance studies into the classroom is to identify texts that, like Heyer’s Sylvester, connect in important formal, thematic or historical ways to texts that already have an established place in the curriculum.

3. Teaching Sylvester

The unit includes two lectures on Sylvester. In 2010, the first lecture was delivered by a guest of the UTAS English program, Jennifer Kloester, author of Georgette Heyer’s Regency World and Heyer’s official biography (forthcoming 2011). Kloester’s lecture explained the historiographic and literary traditions that informed Heyer’s depiction of the Regency period, and encouraged students to think critically about the relationship between “history” and “fiction” in Sylvester. The following week, Lisa Fletcher delivered a lecture focused more closely on the novel, in which she introduced the term “romance” to the discussion and examined Heyer’s self-reflexive use of genre conventions. Kloester and Fletcher worked closely together to plan their approach to the lectures; in particular, they were concerned to spark interest in a text (and genre), with which tutors in the unit had reported most students were unfamiliar.[2] They were aware too of quite open resistance from some students (especially males) to studying a romance novel and concerned to use the lectures to model “serious” scholarly research and analysis.

Lecture Summary: Kloester

In short, the first lecture on Sylvester provided students with background to assist with their study of a novelist and a sub-genre with which they were largely unfamiliar. The first aim of this lecture was to introduce Heyer as a writer, not only of historical romance novels, but also as someone who had a remarkable ability to seamlessly integrate historical fact with enduringly readable fiction. Heyer is universally recognized as the creator of the Regency genre of historical fiction and lauded for her ability to “bring the past to life” (Fahnestock-Thomas; Fletcher; Kloester). Her historical fiction offers students an accessible medium for examining the methodologies required to create this sense of the past and to look at some of the issues rising from the diffusion of historical facts through a fictional text.

The second aim was to raise the students’ awareness of Heyer’s own historical context and how this affected her understanding of what history was and the kinds of historical data she accrued for her novels. An understanding of this aspect of her writing is particularly important given the dramatic shift in historiography that occurred throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century which eventually resulted in the professionalization of history. In order to assess Heyer’s writing and her historical methodology the students needed to know that hers was a nineteenth-century approach to the past. She was greatly influenced by the grand narrative histories written by famous nineteenth-century historians such as Macaulay, Carlyle and Froude as well as by novelists such as Sir Walter Scott, Stanley Weyman, and Charles Dickens, among others.

There are several useful parallels to be drawn between Scott and Heyer: both were the number one best-selling authors of historical fiction in their day and both had a concern for historical accuracy; each attracted a wide audience, introducing many new readers to history; both were innovative in their depiction of the past and each came to be identified by a particular type of novel or historical period. But there were also differences in their treatment of history and in the focus of their novels. Scott was a more historical writer than Heyer, with a more scholarly approach to the past and, unlike Heyer, much of his history is overt—as demonstrated in the later editions of his books where he was at pains to include in their introductions, notes and appendices, many of his novels’ historical underpinnings. By contrast, Heyer made little or no concession to her readers’ possible interest in the historical sources from which she drew her portrait of the Regency. Apart from her two Waterloo books, An Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride, her Regencies are devoid of footnotes or bibliographies and offer their audience no clear way of discerning the historical facts from Heyer’s fictional imaginings.

This narrative paradox forces the reader to trust Heyer in her recreation of the historical period. There is an expectation that factual detail will be accurate and that she has rendered the past faithfully. For Heyer this meant creating fictional stories that were not merely set against a backdrop of historical scenes but that were actually dependent on the historical realities of the era. As in Scott, in Heyer’s novels, the history is an essential element of the books—an inherent part of the story, plot structure and writing technique; the historical past is so closely woven into the fictional story that the history cannot be extracted from the novels without destroying the textual entity. Unlike many modern category historical romances, Heyer’s romantic plots both depend upon and are informed by the historical past she depicts.

This is especially true in Sylvester, a novel which relies for part of its plot on Regency society’s attitudes to women. When Phoebe Marlow is told she is to receive an offer of marriage from the hero, Sylvester, she is aghast. She understands, however, that her social and domestic situation makes it impossible for her to refuse such an offer—even from a man she purports to despise. Heyer’s knowledge of the era, gleaned from her intensive reading of mainly primary source material (especially contemporary letters, diaries, journals and other eye-witness accounts) allowed her to develop her plot in keeping with the known customs and attitudes of the day.

At this point in the lecture it was necessary to explain to the students how Heyer’s specific knowledge of the social aspects of the Regency period pre-dated many of the comprehensive histories of the period. This is vital to understanding the nature of Heyer’s history and her portrait of the Regency. One of the reasons she stuck so closely to the primary sources was because in 1935, when she wrote her first Regency novel, Regency Buck, there were very few secondary sources about the period. Most writing about the era was incorporated into much larger histories of the nineteenth century or books on specific subjects such as the Napoleonic Wars.

An analysis of three major historical bibliographies (Royal Historical Society; Chaloner and Richardson; Brown and Christie) reveals that general recognition by historians of the “Regency” as a specific or distinctive historical period did not begin until the late 1940s (by which time Heyer had already written nine bestselling Regency novels). In the 1950s there was a gradual increase in written accounts of the era, with a more marked increase in historiographical interest occurring in the 1960s and 1970s, which has continued to the present day. From 1950 onwards there was a significant shift in the number of history books with the word “Regency” in their title. Whereas only twelve books were published with the word Regency in their title in the 120 years between 1830 and 1950, in the thirty years between 1950 and 1980, twenty-five books such books were published. Since then the number has grown exponentially (in fact, the increase from the late 1940s runs parallel to the huge growth in popularity of Heyer’s Regencies from 1944).

In Sylvester Heyer makes deliberate use of her knowledge of the era by drawing on the experience of the historical figure, Lady Caroline Lamb. Not only does Heyer refer directly to Lady Caroline and her novel Glenarvon in Sylvester, but she also has her fictional heroine Phoebe anonymously write her own scandalous roman à clef. This parallel juxtaposition of the factual and the fictional typifies Heyer’s approach to her writing. By constructing her novels with an invisible scaffolding of meticulous historical detail she strengthens the verisimilitude of the emotional drama (though only the most knowledgeable readers may be aware of it).

The tone, the style, the color with which history was written in the nineteenth century legitimized and strengthened Heyer’s own work. This is evident not only in her approach to research and her perception of the historical process, but also in the literary construction of her prose. Her form of history was not always so very far removed from the rhythm and language of the works of the great nineteenth-century historians such as Macaulay, Carlyle, and Froude. Heyer was not a historian, if a historian is defined as one who analyzes the past in order to solve a puzzle, or to explain the causes and consequences of a specific event or to clarify the evolution and significance of ideas and movements. She was not interested in “causation”—although a close reading suggests that she was interested in social realities (mainly for the upper class) such as class relations, marriage, money and the role of women. Nor was she an analyst or an explicator; she was a narrator of the past; though she was not a historian, her books are full of history: historical fact, people, events and a remarkable sense of period. She was not interested in critiquing her sources—either for their interpretation of the past or for the internal machinations of their writers’ minds. For her the sources were just that—sources: “authentic” records of past moments waiting to be perused by the researcher and mined for any relevant information which might contribute to the accurate reconstruction of some aspect of the past. Heyer was, in some ways, a consumer—rather than a practitioner—of historical research; she absorbed the historical past and understood it but she did not seek to explain it to her readers.

Ultimately, Heyer offered a picture of the Regency that was (and is) far more than a mere painted backdrop against which her characters perform: she created a carefully constructed social matrix (based on her understanding of the primary source material), which was true to the structure of the society about which she wrote. Heyer was rigorous in her application of historical fact within her chosen slice of the Regency period. By immersing herself in its broader economic, political and social structures as well as in its lively and engaging minutiae, she was able to create characters who not only “lived” within the Regency but whose (albeit fictional) lives were also shaped by its customs, manners and mores.

Lecture Summary: Fletcher

This lecture began by reading two brief 1958 reviews of Sylvester in order to introduce a focus on “romance.” Kirkus Reviews classifies Sylvester as “Another Regency Romp [which] pursues the obstacle course of true love in the marital stakes of Sylvester, Duke of Salford, and authoress-incognito, Miss Phoebe Marlow.” It concludes, “Nothing to put you in a gudgeon [sic] but a pleasant entertainment for Heyer’s following.” The review published in Library Journal is similar: “Period romance of Regency England. [. . .] All ends happily. Frothy, readable, and full of delightful Regency dialogue.” According to these reviews, Sylvester is an uncomplicated, formulaic novel. Neither reviewer takes Heyer’s novel very seriously, but treats it as a light read. For both reviewers, the novel’s defining feature is the love story between the Duke of Salford and Phoebe Marlow; historical detail (“delightful Regency dialogue”) provides the backdrop for the romance, but is not significant in itself. The reviews were a useful starting point because they invited students to consider Sylvester as a historical romance fiction and to examine the meaning and significance of the term “romance” in this context. In brief, this lecture raised and addressed the following questions:

  • What are the implications of describing Heyer as a “romance” novelist? Is this how critics usually classify her?
  • Heyer’s fiction has attracted very little attention in literary studies, certainly in comparison to popular genre writers such as her close contemporary Agatha Christie. To what extent is this neglect related to her reputation as a “romance” writer?
  • Does Heyer’s meticulously researched period detail simply provide the backdrop of a love story, which could be set in any time or place? Or, are the history and the romance ultimately inseparable?

The aim of this lecture was to encourage students to think more critically about their response to Sylvester; and to model the value of close textual analysis when developing arguments about popular romance texts. To this end, we used Gillian Beer’s broad definition of “romance” as a broad and diverse category of literature, which is unified by the “imaginative functions” of “escape” and “instruction.” These two terms were central to the first serious critical responses to Heyer: A.S. Byatt’s essays “Georgette Heyer is a Better Writer Than You Think” and “The Ferocious Reticence of Georgette Heyer.” Byatt writes, “the act of research was for Georgette Heyer, the act of recreating a past to inhabit” (“Ferocious” 37). Sylvester is an ideal text to include in “Fictions of History” because Heyer uses the form of the historical romance novel to reflect on her approach to combining historical and romantic elements, and to consider the role and responsibilities of the historical romance writer.

On the first page, Sylvester is introduced as a man who has forgotten the “lure” of medieval romances; “He and Harry, his twin, had slain the dragons, and ridden great wallops at the knights” (1). Sylvester is consistently described with reference to stock heroic figures from fairytale, but makes the mistake of assuming reality and romance are unrelated categories: “No bad fairy had attended his christening to leaven his luck with the gift of a hunchback or a harelip” (2). He mocks his mother’s belief in “love-matches” (23) and asks whether she would prefer him to behave “like the prince in a fairy-tale” (23). Soon after he says to his godmother “Now if you were a fairy godmother, ma’am, you would wave your wand and so conjure up exactly the bride I want!” (30). Sylvester may have forgotten how to play childhood games of knights and dragons—how to imaginatively inhabit a romance—but he is nonetheless cast by his mother and godmother as the knightly hero in a fairly standard romance plot. Sylvester shocks both women with his anti-romantic plans to marry; to be, in his words “leg-shackled” (11) to a “well-born girl of my own order” (12). But his “godlike” (4) manner is based on a misunderstanding of his role in writing his life story. Sylvester’s confidence that he can plan his transition from the “muslin company” (13) to the “Marriage Mart” is based on his faith that a man of his “rank, wealth, and elegance” (2) is in control. The name of his country estate—Chance—is an early hint in the novel that Sylvester is not necessarily the author of his own fate.

Clearly, on a thematic level, this novel is about novels and novel writing because the chief impediment to Phoebe’s romance with Sylvester is the publication of her novel The Lost Heir, which she and others describe as a “dashed silly book” (282), a “trumpery novel” (283) and a “wretched romance” (313). But Sylvester is also about romance authorship because of the roles played by Sylvester’s mother and godmother (the “Duchess” and the “Dowager”) in their “scheme” to match-make Sylvester and Phoebe. In fact “scheme” is the key word in this book. There is something gorgeously comic in the inclusion of these two women schemers—they are both immobilized by illness, so can’t inhabit the Regency world of the novel to the same degree as other characters. But they’re more in control of the course of events than anyone else. The Duchess is a published poet and the Dowager a careful and accomplished letter writer. So, in effect, they can be read as romance writers—as women like Heyer—possessing unparalleled knowledge of the Regency and its people, they bring the romance to its happy ending without the main players realizing the degree to which they have been manipulated.

The Dowager and the Duchess can be read as surrogates for Heyer within the fictional world. Stranded at the Blue Boar, Sylvester exclaims “I wonder why I embroiled myself in this affair” (101). Of course, he is in this affair because he has been set up by a conspiracy of romancers and their “skilful handling” (206). There are numerous examples of the characterization of the Dowager and the Duchess as romance authors, both in relation to the relationship between Phoebe and Sylvester and in relation to their portrayal of characters in Regency society more broadly: “Unusual: that was the epithet affixed to Miss Marlow. It emanated from Lady Ingham, but no one remembered that” (195).

This section of the lecture focused on the question: how is Phoebe’s literal authorship of her book The Lost Heir and of the Duke’s reputation as a wicked uncle related to Lady Ingham and the Duchess of Salford’s more figurative “authorship” of the romance between Phoebe and the Duke? In effect, all three of these women are rewarded for their roles as authors. The risk that Phoebe will be ruined is never genuine because her book is subsumed by the greater text of her “fairy godmothers’” scheme to marry her to a Duke. There is another “authoress” in the novel: Lady Henry Rayne. Ianthe tells stories to “blacken” her brother-in-law’s name. When Sylvester learns that Phoebe has been talking to Ianthe he asks “Did I figure as the Unfeeling Brother in Law or as the Wicked Uncle?” (192). Ianthe is the actual villain in this novel—vain, petty, unmotherly, seduced by a parody of the Regency hero, Sir Nugent Fotherby. The characterization of Fotherby is a further example of Heyer’s self-reflexive depiction of the Regency as a constructed fictional world. In order to encourage students to look for further metafictional elements in the novel, the lecture concluded by suggesting that they examine Heyer’s depiction of the relationship between genre and gender. For instance, Tom Orde assures Phoebe that Sylvester will never read The Lost Heir, because only “girls” are interested in such books. Soon after he is surprised—and disconcerted—to learn that Sylvester is an avid reader of novels exactly like Phoebe’s “wretched romance.” He shares his mother’s love for popular novels, for whom reading is her “greatest solace” (128).

4. Student Responses

Of the 84 students enrolled in this unit, 26 (31%) chose to write their 2500-word essay on Sylvester. Heyer was also a popular choice in the exam. For one of their exam questions students could choose to answer on Heyer, Shakespeare, or Sir Walter Scott and here 40% of students chose Sylvester. Predictably, although 24 students in the class were male (28%), only one male student chose Heyer for his essay and only four chose to write on Heyer in the exam. Of students with results within the top 15% of the class only one chose to write on Heyer for the essay, and three chose Heyer for the exam. These results suggest that Heyer appealed more to female students and that some of the more serious English students either preferred Shakespeare and Scott, or assumed the choice of more canonical writers might earn higher marks.

Students could choose one of the following broad questions to answer in relation to one or more of the set texts:

Essay Questions

  1. “When historical figures are the central figures in works of fiction, there is a danger that the novel will not present the atmosphere of the age, but a picture of an individual in that age . . . Ideally the protagonist of an historical novel should be a fictitious character within whom the wider and often conflicting pressures of the period can be seen at work.”
    Discuss with close reference to one or more of the texts studied in this unit.
  2. Discuss the representation of at least one category of difference (e.g. race, gender, class, religion) in one or more of the texts studied this semester. How does this relate to the text’s treatment of history?
  3. “Fictional texts which tell stories of the past are inherently contradictory because they cannot meet the competing demands of ‘literature’ and ‘history.’” Discuss with close reference to one or more of the texts studied this semester.

Five students chose to discuss Heyer in the context of question 3, but all other students chose question 2 and focused on gender and (less frequently) class. Nearly all students chose to focus on Sylvester alone, rather than comparing it to other texts in the unit. Results spanned the full range from fail to high distinction, but the small cluster of students choosing to discuss Heyer in relation to “the competing demands of ‘literature’ and ‘history’” did produce the strongest work. These students tended to engage more closely with the theorists introduced through the unit (including Georg Lukács and HaydenWhite) and grappled with the problem of reconciling Heyer’s meticulous historical research with her adherence to romance genre conventions.

Overwhelmingly students were interested in writing about the social restrictions placed on young women in Regency society, and many thought that Sylvester’s unconventional heroine, Phoebe, provided some critique of nineteenth-century gender roles and expectations. Essays generally revealed a limited understanding of the roles occupied by women in Regency society however, and a tendency to view all periods and societies prior to the present as consistently and similarly oppressive. Aspects of Sylvester that worried students included the depiction of Ianthe, particularly in regard to the implicit dismissal of her rights as a mother. According to one essay, “outrage on behalf of the reader at her neglect of Edmund is likely to obscure a more understated reality, which is that regardless of whether Ianthe was motherly or not, in the patriarchal world of the English Regency, a widowed woman’s child could be legally left to another male relative with no argument to be made about it.” The student maintained that in this particular instance Sylvester is “uncritically faithful to the sensibilities of the English Regency period.” A number of the more thoughtful essays on gender also argued that Heyer’s depiction of the pressures and constraints placed on young Regency women is complicated and/or compromised by the pleasures and expectations generated by the romance genre.

Students writing about class often demonstrated difficulty understanding the subtle social distinctions informing relationships in Sylvester, but many essays noted Heyer’s focus on aristocratic characters and found an uncritical acceptance of class difference in her work. One student wrote, “although Heyer makes the reader aware of the hierarchal society; it is, in her novels, essentially a happy and content hierarchy in gender and in class.” Students seemed generally well-informed about Regency fashion and manners, yet despite Kloester’s detailed introductory lecture, occasional references to Sylvester’s “eighteenth-century” or “Victorian” setting still cropped up. Overall the essays on Heyer reflected a strong engagement with the lectures, with several students citing details mentioned in Kloester’s lecture. Many mentioned the interesting preponderance of female authors in the text and some responded productively to Fletcher’s suggestion to explore its metafictional dimensions in further detail.

Although Sylvester did not appeal to all students (and some disliked it intensely), it proved a particularly useful text for tutorial teaching. Most classes contained some dedicated Heyer fans and the range of impassioned responses for and against Sylvester generated lively debate. Perhaps the most important function the text served within the unit was that it operated as an excellent touchstone for measuring the other texts and for considering the various themes of the course. Students were struck, for example, by the contrast that emerged between Scott’s intrusive omniscient narrator in Ivanhoe, whose nineteenth-century view of twelfth-century attitudes is always obvious, and Heyer’s more discreet use of free indirect discourse to guide responses to her characters. Sylvester was followed in the course by J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur and again the contrast in narrative style and tone helped students to recognize and appreciate Farrell’s ironic late-twentieth century take on a nineteenth-century colonial world view. Interestingly, questions about the depiction of heroism, masculinity and British nationalism that arose in relation to the other texts in the unit also proved apposite for Sylvester. By the end of the course most students acknowledged that the inclusion of a popular historical romance added breadth to their understanding of the development and range of historical fiction. Sylvester helped to focalize questions about the relationship between fiction and history; about what constitutes valid subject matter for both history and fiction; and about how writers of fiction shape our understanding of the past.

Works Cited

Beer, Gillian. The Romance. London: Methuen, 1986. Print.

Brown, Lucy M. and Ian R. Christie, ed. Bibliography of British History 1789 – 1851. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. Print.

Byatt, A.S. “The Ferocious Reticence of Georgette Heyer.” 1975. Fahnestock-Thomas 289-303. Print.

—. “Georgette Heyer is a Better Novelist Than You Think.” 1969. Fahnestock-Thomas 270-78. Print.

Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution: A History. London: J.M. Dent, 1929. Print.

Chaloner, W.H. and Richardson, R.C. Bibliography of British Economic and Social History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984. Print.

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

Fahnestock-Thomas, Mary, ed. Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective. Saraland, AL: PrinnyWorld, 2001. Print.

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

Froude, James A. History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth. London: J.W. Parker, 1856-70. Print.

Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. Sylvester. 1957. London: Arrow, 2004. Print.

Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. 2005. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2010. Print.

Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. 1937. Trans. Hannah Mitchell and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1983. Print.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The History of England from the Accession of James II. London: J.M. Dent, 1912. Print.

Royal Historical Society. Writings on British History 1901-1933, Volume 5:1825-1914 and Appendix. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980. Print.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. Print.

[1] A similar argument drives the teaching of popular romance texts in two other advanced-level units taught by Lisa Fletcher at UTAS: “Popular Fiction: From Page to Screen,” and “Cinema, Costumes and Sexuality,” in which students read romance novels and films under the rubrics of “popular fiction studies” and “feminist film theory.”

[2] The tutorials in this unit were run by Gaby and Guinevere Narraway. We would like to acknowledge Guinevere’s contribution to the planning and research for this paper.