One of the many criticisms levelled at romance novels is that they’re a poor model for women when it comes to real-life relationships. All that fairy tale nonsense, detractors say, will make women want the wrong things from their partners. I could list a dozen things wrong with that assumption, but I’ll limit myself to three.
First, the blanket belief that, alone among the literate, romance readers believe everything they read is seriously insulting. Second, it demonstrates that said detractors don’t read much modern romance, or they’d know the kind of realism one can find therein. That’s annoying. Is divorce realistic, or abuse, or loss? Don’t worry: they’re covered. (Also, please consider what that means about the nature of ‘realism’). Third: fairy tales yes, but nonsense? Please. Bruno Bettleheim would open a can of Jungian whoopass on such ignorance, and rightfully so.
Fairy tales are a subset of folk tales, and folktales are the backbone of literature. They are powerful. These are the stories that outlive nations. Religions may try to bury them, and political regimes to repress them, but folktalkes just
don new clothes, get new haircuts, and keep going. As a kid I read hundreds, devouring one textbook-sized collection of international stories after another. So by the time I hit junior high I’d recognized that the same patterns appeared in stories from every part of the globe. This story might have a fairy godmother where that one had a talking fox; this beast might be a lion where that one was a snake. But the basic patterns, the archtypes, were the same, whether the story came from France or Russia, from India or China. That’s not nonsense, it’s nuclear.
So, yes, romance novels often play off patterns found in fairy and folk
tales. Which is another way of saying they’re tied into the beating heart of the narrative impulse. They’re the stories that chronicle women’s lives and their hopes, which are at least as realistic as their miseries. Fairy tales can encompass just about any setting, problem or character. In some ways, they’re the ultimate in fan fiction: since the pattern is already established, writers need only to allude to it to establish emotional resonance. I can’t list all the archtypes here, so for the sake of symmetry,
here are the three I think are most common in modern romances.
Beauty and the Beast
This is one of my personal favourites. From Persephone onward, in this story the underlying archetype is that sacrifice is rewarded…and that men are capable of change. Though the beastly character isn’t always the hero: Taming of the Shrew is a Beauty and Beast story too. Of course nowadays beastliness isn’t a matter of looks but of behavior. So the beast in question might go from withdrawn to engaged; from rapaciously ambitious to sharing; or from reckless hedonism to committed monogamy. Don’t be fooled, though, it’s not an easy trip for anyone involved. But it’s worth it.
If you like historical romance try: Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase;The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer; It Happened One Autumn, by Lisa Kleypas.
If you prefer contemporary: Shoot to Thrill, Nina Bruhns; Dream Man, Linda Howard; Cold as Ice by Anne Stuart.
The hardworking heroine in any of this wide group of stories epitomizes successful transformation. But the trappings are the least important part of her elevation. It’s not about the slipper: it’s about the change in state. There might be a literal move from rags to riches, but more often Cinderella stories feature characters who move from paucity to abundance. Not surprisingly, this is one of the most popular archetypes. After all, if there’s one thing women know how to do, it’s work. In Cinderella stories, readers get to see drudgery and discomfort turn into acceptance and
love. Also under this rubric are the stories of disguise and secret identity.
Historical: The Runaway Princess, Christina Dodd; Scandal, Amanda Quick; Reader and Raelynx, Sharon Shinn (which is a fantasy novel, but also a romance: that the transforming character is male doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong in this category).
Contemporary: First Lady, Susan Elizabeth Phillips; The Winning Hand, Nora Roberts; Nine Coaches Waiting, Mary Stewart.
I have a sneaking fondness for stories of awakening. Not from sleep, of course: I mean those in which a character comes into her own, ie: ‘wakes up’ to a sense of her own potential and abilities. These characters discover and revel in new skills, or redevelop old ones. They try new experiences, make new friends, and change their own lives for the better. Change isn’t alwasy easy. Sometimes it’s a detonation in their existence. And sometimes they simply learn to let go of weight and pain carried too long. However it happens, these are the stories of lives refreshed and made
Historical: A Summer to Remember, Mary Balogh; Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold; Guilty Pleasures, Laura Lee Gurhke.
Contemporary: Fast Women, Jennifer Crusie; Marianna, Susannah Kearsley; Lazarus Rising, Anne Stuart.
Chris Szego isn’t a Jungian, but she still thinks Bruno Bettleheim rocks.
Right on, sister!
Over the years I’ve gotten lots of flak for reading romance. As a feminist, I’m not “supposed” to and as an academic with a B.A. and M.A. in literature and a Ph.D. in film studies, I’m supposed to be “above” it.
Oh please. 😉 Get over yourselves, people, and start thinking about WHY we love genre fiction so much!
Including people with brains.
this is a great piece, chris.
and HD, i might have poetry on the brain, but i keep thinking, “wow, the imagist poet HD wrote the gutter!”
Once upon a time I used to be a lit-snob who avoided romance because it was “badly written” and was about women I could not relate to. Well Chris fixed that but good!
Romance, like all genres, has the good, the bad and the wretched. Then there is the brilliant. “The Paladin of Souls” (mentioned above) is an extraordinary book that I have read many times.