Bodice rippers, feminist literature, or just good yarns? (Part 2 of 3)

ferdinand-roybet-french-1840-1920-the-presentIn part 1 of this article, I made the claim that romance novels are inherently feminist. Pop back and read part 1 for the argument so far!

In part 2, I continue to argue the point that romances are Dangerous Books for Girls.

#2 Because the love match

Back when the romance novel first started, and even now in many parts of the world, marriages were not about being in love. Marriages were first and foremost alliances of families, at best a mutual exchange of value (my daughter for your cow, a better parcel of land for our joint grandson, your support in the House of Lords in return for my investment in your mills with a family connection to cement the alliance).

While technically in England neither party could be married without their consent after the mid-18th century Hardwicke Marriage Act, in practice, children (and particularly daughters) were raised to understand that marriage was about position, status, property, and opportunity.

The circles that controlled the most status and property, and that therefore had the most to lose if women wanted to have more than a token say in their life partner, were also those that controlled education and publishing. They had a vested interest in suppressing books that suggested that love matches were to be preferred, as do their counterparts in other parts of the world today.

This is not to say that the Brontes and Jane Austen and a plethora of other writers invented stories about love matches. But think of the great love stories before that time and name a few that ended well! Tristan and Isolde? Launcelot and Guinevere? Romeo and Juliet? Outside of fairy tales (As Valerie Paradiz points out in Clever Maids, fairy tales were stories shared for and by women), literature is largely and grimly devoid of happy love matches.

#3 Because escape

Romance novels, along with other genre novels, are often called escapist. This is used as a denigrator, as if escape is a bad thing. Who needs to escape? People in a cage. Who objects to escape? People who control the cage.

In romance novels, readers can live vicariously through the heroine. They can go to the ball. They can visit exotic places, triumph over the villain, fall in love with a rogue and have their heart broken then discover someone worthy to love instead.

They can take a break, a rest, from whatever consumes their day-to-day lives,—a high-pressure cut-throat job, childcare and housework, a daily grind just to pay the bills, illness or disability—and try being someone else for a change.

Escapist fiction broadens the view of what is possible. No wonder the establishment regarded it then, and still regards it now, as Dangerous.

#4 Because the author-ity

It has been said that men write about the big picture and women about the domestic world. This is a gross generalisation, of course. But certainly as a reader I tend to read more books by women than by men, because I’ve found that books by men tend to focus more on the chase, the action, while books by women tend to focus more on the personal growth of the characters. And I’m interested in people and how they interact.

An article about a program that picks the gender of a writer based on a piece of text has this to say:

Men more often concern themselves with actions, ideas, and analysis. Women more often concern themselves with processes, perceptions, and implications. Philip Ball observes, “men talk more about objects, and women more about relationships.”

Gender Genie claims a 60–70% accuracy, which is better than a random guess.

Romances are about human relationships, usually from the perspective of a woman. Women are the authority. More than that, a woman is usually the author. And in the (fictional) world controlled by the woman author, before the end of the novel the male love interest is going to learn to love, respect, understand and value a woman.

(When I got to this part of my talk, a man in the audience asked me if that meant this might lead readers to be disappointed in real life men, to which I answered ‘Yes, absolutely. And a good thing, too!’

Romances that teach women that they can be loved, respected, understood and valued are very Dangerous Books.)

Part 3 (two more reasons and the conclusion)



3 thoughts on “Bodice rippers, feminist literature, or just good yarns? (Part 2 of 3)

  1. “Escapist fiction broadens the view of what is possible. No wonder the establishment regarded it then, and still regards it now, as Dangerous.”

    “Romances that teach women that they can be loved, respected, understood and valued are very Dangerous Books.”

    Yes, yes, yes! I love this post. This rings very true for me. I know reading romance at an early age changed my ideas of what was possible and inspired me to a) study history because I loved historicals, b) move to the UK to do it (!), and c) find a real life romantic hero. They do exist! Reading romance allowed me to figure out what I wanted and how I wanted to be treated before I was really old enough to date or have bad relationships that might otherwise dictate my standards, and I am so grateful for that. We need literature telling people (women in particular) anything is possible and they deserve to be loved, respected, understood, and valued. I know I wouldn’t be in the same place without it!

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