Home Index Subscribe Conference Reviews
This review was published online in April 2004
A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
248pp. Hb. $24.95 / £17.50. ISBN 0-8122-3303-4.
Reviewed by James Crane, The University of MichiganAnn Arbor
Several literary scholars have called for an end to the exchange of arguments either for or against the value of popular fiction written by and for women. Many of these scholars note that the Ann Douglas/Jane Tompkins debate obscures questions of power and privilege by simply rearranging received standards of taste. Yet Pamela Regis discounts any critical ambivalence about the potential social and cultural benefits of popular romances in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, making a bold claim for the freedom inherent in the narrative conventions of the genre. The love stories in romance novels, she says, actually require the destruction of social barriers. Therefore romances promote not conformity but womens independence, because their stories depict heroines who overcome constraints upon individual liberty.
Regis argues that romance novels are properly those in which one or more heroines overcome barriers to their freedom to choose, and asserts a long history and stable form for the romance novel (158). Thus a transhistorical and transatlantic history of the romance form supports the studys polemic against the thesis that novels marketed toward women readers enforce bondage to social institutions. Regis directly associates this thesis with feminist reading practices. Detailing eight different requirements for a romance novel, Regis assigns equal critical importance to each of these formal conventions. The usual emphasis on the hegemonic effects of the heterosexual marriage plot, she claims, stems from a critical failure to historically examine the increasing emphasis upon emotional individualism and freedom of choice in romance novels. The search for individual liberty upon which Regis premises her readings automatically entails a search for a husband. Nevertheless, for Regis the happy ending is trumped by processes of overcoming cultural barriers and reforming society through love. Thus Regis emphasizes the process of reading and de-emphasizes the confining effects of the obligatory conclusion.
In the first part of the study, Regis refutes much previous criticism of romance and of reading practices among female fans. In the next section, she provides a unique definition of the romance novel by adducing eight required narrative features:
In one or more scenes, romance novels always depict the following: the initial state of society in which heroine and hero must court, the meeting between heroine and hero, the barrier to the union of heroine and hero, the attraction between the heroine and hero, the declaration of love between heroine and hero, the point of ritual death, the recognition by heroine and hero of the means to overcome the barrier, and the betrothal. These elements are essential. (30)
The third section describes the heroines of love plots from 1740 through 1908, touching on Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and E. M. Forster. Finally, in part four Regis surveys twentieth-century romances by E. M. Hull, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Janet Dailey, Jayne Ann Krentz, and Nora Roberts.
When she is discussing narrative conventions and describing ways to read works with independent romantic heroines, the arguments Regis offers are strong. The self-sustaining logic of her polemic, however, wavers at several points. Regis notes that the rise of the romance novel coincided with social movements emphasizing affective individualism and companionate marriage, as well as improving the economic status of married women. If it is not the climactic marriage but the courtship that makes the romance, then the process of exercising romantic choice makes nineteenth- and twentieth-century heroines independent (159). Nevertheless, if the heroine of a romance is free to choose, she is free only to choose the hero, for this is the last of the eight required characteristics of the form.
Literary historians may question the ready association of romance with female characters and women readers. The theoretically inclined will suspect that Regis overrelies on fixed analytic categories to construct both her definition and her defense of a genre. Because she reads some forms as male and some as female, for Regis apparent differences between the sexes apply to genres as well. But it seems that A Natural History of the Romance Novel is not so much about gender as about women, or perhaps about the need to reevaluate a narrowly-defined field of middle-brow cultural production often derided for its popularity with women.
Regis draws on a broad knowledge of Anglo-American prose fiction to construct her liberal defense of the romance novel. Not only does she survey a wide range of fictional works, but also she sketches the roles played by publishers in the rise of popular romance fiction in the US. The story of the Americanization of the romance novel through the efforts of tireless author Janet Dailey and the timely marketing efforts of Silhouette Books in the 1980s illustrates the ways that genres might criss-cross the Atlantic and become adapted to the demands of different cultures. Regis argues that the increasing flexibility of the romance form in the twentieth century allowed for further development of independent emotional agency in women characters. Her detailed description of the publishing industry and the booming market for love stories in both Britain and America is a necessary addition to our understanding of contemporary womens print culture.
Regis also knows a great deal about the cultures created by readers of the contemporary romance novel, and her description of the continuing literary-critical disdain for the form is astute. Nevertheless, her programmatic concept of romance as a distinct genre causes a failure to consider related arguments about gender and the sentimental novel in the nineteenth century. Like other topics that might upset the longstanding stability of generic definitions, Regis assiduously avoids queerness. While this absence is especially apparent in the concluding examinations of contemporary texts, Regis applies her 'one man, one woman formula to romances through the ages. Pamela and Clarissa must bear the taxing responsibility of representing all the amatory fiction of the age of sensibility. And recent considerations of the politics of the love plot are missing entirely. As a result, the history of critical neglect of the romance form that Regis offers is wispy despite moments of great insight. Her readings of specific works are sometimes too brief but always original; Regis understands twentieth-century novels especially well. Although many scholars will grapple with her rigorous attempt to define and stabilize the romance empirically, readers of twentieth-century love stories will appreciate the critical acumen with which she treats works unlikely to receive much attention from other academic writers.
In her conclusion, Regis lists some of the imperatives that she uses to characterize the heroine of popular romance: Heroines in twentieth-century romance novels are intelligent and strong. They have to be. They have to tame the hero. They have to heal him. Or they have to do both (206). Considering the rigid requirements and circumscriptions she adduces, it is sometimes hard to see the works as sources of emotional 'freedom and joy and not of compulsory, redemptive heterosexuality (207). Regis calls her study a natural history because for her, the romance novel is a species, easily classified and formally static. Rigid definitions prevent any slippage among generic categories. The presence of hybrid forms only testifies to the stability of the romance, and so relationships among the historical novel, the novel of manners, and the romance are never addressed. While both Pamela Regis and my sister have conspired to make me read and consider fiction by Nora Roberts, I think that the jury is still out on the question of this authors literary mastery despite her undeniable popular appeal and skillful execution of convention (202). Nevertheless, A Natural History of the Romance offers a cogent challenge to literary scholars who discount questions of cultural value in popular narrative.
© Symbiosis, 2004
Home Index Subscribe Conference Reviews