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

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

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

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

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

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

Author / year Title Critic begins with /

critic concludes with

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


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

pornography for women


“easy to read pablum” (309)

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


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



“rigid” (32)

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


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



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

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


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

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


“superficial plot development” (133)

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

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

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

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

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

Table 2. Millennial Romance Criticism

Author /


Title Critic begins with /

critic concludes with

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

one or both present?

Pamela Regis


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

/ joy and freedom


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Lisa Fletcher


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

/ historical romance defined, occupied, and dominated by heteronormativity


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

Contemptus mundi affirmed: Hegemony of heteronormativity is lamentable

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

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan


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

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


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

Contemptus mundi rejected: Romances provide a social good: happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 3. Special Topoi of Literary Critics






Contemptus Mundi*

Social Justice **

Mistaken Critic**


*Identified by Fahenstock and Secor, 1991

**Identified by Wilder, 2005

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

Complexity and the Romance Critic’s Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1997 Mussell, Kay, ed. Paradoxa 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Love as Repetition-Compulsion: The View from Psychoanalysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love as Essence: The Philosophical Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romance and Repetition: The Literary Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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