Is Jane Austen a “Romance Novelist”?

oxford-pride-and-prejudiceI feel as if I should begin with a disclaimer: this post is just a preliminary attempt to sort something out for myself that I am sure has been discussed a lot already! I know it’s not a new question, but it is a new one for me to be thinking carefully about — and that’s what my blog is for, not for presenting absolutely finished position papers but for exploration. So don’t jump on me if, for you, this is old news or already a settled question! Instead, tell me what you think, since one thing I’m hoping will come from writing a little about this question here is that I’ll get some leads and ideas for how to think about it better, or where to read more about it.

I’m puzzling over whether Austen is a “romance novelist” (and I’m going to keep the scare quotes, for reasons that I’ll get to in a bit) because I’ve begun doing research in preparation for the romance unit in next year’s Pulp Fiction class (another disclaimer: it’s just a first-year writing class organized around a fairly imprecise definition of “pulp,” so I’m not going to get very ambitious about the theoretical or critical grounding — I just need to sort out some terms and frameworks for talking about our one or two readings in the genre).*

One much-cited scholarly work in this field is Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), so that’s one of the first ones I took out of the library to read. It’s generally very helpful, and it’s also thought-provoking, for its tone as much as its argument. It is certainly less rah-rah than some of the more fannish books I’ve peered at about the genre (such as Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels (very ably reviewed at Open Letters by Jessica Miller). It still differs from most academic criticism I’ve read, though, in being very openly a work of advocacy: it includes a chapter called “In Defense of the Romance Novel,” for instance; it declares that its purpose is not just to historicize or analyze the genre but to “refute” negative critical perspectives on it; and it includes many celebratory claims on behalf of romance fiction — just for example, “the romance novel is … about women’s freedom. The genre is popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings.”

RegisNot that there’s anything wrong with that! Lots of (maybe even most) critical work is at least implicitly advocating on behalf of its specific topic — whether for its underestimated importance to literary history or for its political efficacy or for a right understanding of its aesthetic properties. Romance is a special case, too: as pretty much everyone I’ve read who writes about romance says at some point, it seems to call for overt special pleading simply because it is so routinely dismissed and its readers and writers so routinely shamed. If Regis seems at times to protest too much, it’s probably just that she knew her choice of subject would be met with skepticism, if not derision, and not just by her academic colleagues. (I expect that more recent scholarship is less defensive, as genre fiction and popular culture more generally have become increasingly familiar parts of the academic landscape. Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz’s collection New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, which came out in 2012, is also on my reading list; I’ll be curious to see if I’m right that the tone has changed.)

Regis’s book is built on a particular (but also very general) definition of romance novels: “a romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines.” She expands on that definition by offering a specific list of structural features — “the eight essential elements of the romance novel” — including “the meeting between heroine and hero,” “the barrier to the union of heroine and hero,” and “the betrothal.” Then, using this definition, she tells a history of the romance novel (as she has defined it) through exemplary texts, starting with Pamela then going through Pride and PrejudiceJane EyreFramley Parsonage, and A Room with a View. It’s not until Chapter 12 that she turns to what she calls “the popular romance novel” — to, that is, all of the books I think most people actually mean when they use the term “romance novel.”

At the end of her discussion of A Room with a View, Regis comments that “it would be [Forster’s] only romance novel.” In a way, then, I could just well have called this post “Is E. M. Forster a ‘Romance Novelist?'” (or Bronte or Trollope or Richardson). As far as I’ve seen, though, it’s really just Austen among these canonical authors who comes up repeatedly in the romance context, and it’s Pride and Prejudice that Regis uses to illustrate her outline of the “eight essential elements.” So I’ll stick with her as a test case for how or whether we want to define “romance novel” as broadly as Regis does.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinRegis is completely right that by her definition, Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel. But here’s the thing: to me, that suggests she’s using the wrong definition. First of all, it’s too broad to be interesting (even her list of canonical “romances” hardly seems to hang together in a meaningful way, outside a very bare skeletal similarity). It also seems anachronistic, in the same way that calling The Moonstone a “mystery” does: there wasn’t really such a category at the time (that’s not really the kind of book Collins himself thought he was writing), and applying our current terms so absolutely means losing sight of the genealogy of our modern genres. Books can be closely related in kind (or, as Regis sets it up, in structure) with being the same kind exactly.

These are already debatable objections, of course: labels are always more or less arbitrary, and we redefine and recategorize things all the time based on new theories and approaches. So here’s another reason I don’t think I like Regis’s approach: I think that insisting that Austen writes “romance novels” indistinguishable in kind from today’s “popular” examples has inapt and potentially unwelcome consequences. For one thing, if this means that Austen and, say, Mary Balogh and Loretta Chase are doing the same thing, it seems to me to follow that Austen is doing it better (because much as I like Lord of Scoundrels, if it’s really an apples to apples comparison, I’d certainly consider Pride and Prejudice the better novel). Georgette Heyer? Fun, but not as artful or incisive or thematically rich as Austen. Balogh? Don’t even try. Lump them all in together, that is, and a hierarchy emerges that’s almost inevitably to the disadvantage of all the not-Austens.

Regis herself would disagree, I think — and others no doubt would too — that we can or should differentiate on the basis of literary merit in quite this way. Some would disavow the whole notion of literary merit, in fact, but Regis seems happy enough making evaluative claims. In her chapter on defining the romance novel, she uses Katherine Gilles Seidel’s Again as an exemplary case alongside Pride and Prejudice, claiming that it is a “complex, formally accomplished, vital romance novel” that makes nonsense of the idea that popular romances are just “hack work”:

Seidel incorporates the eight essential elements of romance, and two of the three incidental ones, in a manner so masterful that it leaves no doubt as to the vitality of the form in contemporary hands.

“Masterful,” no less! I’m only a couple of chapters into Again (which I dutifully rushed out to get), so I can’t be sure, but if it’s anywhere near as good a novel (qua novel) as Pride and Prejudice, I haven’t seen the signs, even though I’m enjoying it fine so far — which is exactly why my intuition is that Regis is coming at this question in the wrong way. We have to be able to acknowledge the differences on terms that don’t set contemporary romance novels up for failure.

scoundrelsAlternatively, you could argue (as I have seen done) that romance, like all genres, comes in both “high” and “low” — or literary and popular — versions.** There’s still a kind of hierarchy, but now you’re separating out those who “transcend the genre” (to use the phrase Ian Rankin hates when applied to crime fiction) from those who happily take their place within it. No direct comparisons are called for, then, and Heyer or Chase (or choose your preferred exemplars) get considered more or less on their own terms. I still think the larger category (the one being subdivided into high and low forms) conflates too many different kinds of things, and the end result can be condescending — it implies, or could, that the serious stuff is going on in some sense over the heads of both readers and writers of the popular incarnations of the genre, or that those who really take themselves and their work seriously will aim at that transcendent kind. But at least this approach doesn’t pretend all novels organized around love and marriage are the same kind of books.

I can see that, strategically, it serves Regis well to define the “romance novel” so that she can include Austen. That way the aura of Austen’s literary prestige can be shared with the popular writers who are the ones who actually need defending. (There may be some circles in which Austen is still shrugged off as a trivial miniaturist, but her iconic cultural status is surely beyond doubt.) But it could just as well backfire if it sets up the wrong expectations: yes, the plot structure of a contemporary popular romance is likely to resemble that of Pride and Prejudice, but if you expect to be reading the next Jane Austen, aren’t you almost certain to be disappointed? Maybe another way to think about it is that Austen is not celebrated because of how she incorporates the eight essential elements of romance (never mind the many “incidental” ones) but for other reasons, and so what Regis is doing is not thoroughly defining a category but encouraging a vast category error. Instead, wouldn’t her defense be more convincing if her definition were narrower — if it were based, not on 18th- or 19th-century marriage plot novels but on, well, actual “romance novels”?

Ay, there’s the rub, though, right? Because how do you define them? Where do you draw the lines? I sometimes say to students in my mystery class that genres and subgenres are themselves fictions, but useful ones, and that while it’s true you can’t perfectly define them, often enough you know them when you’re reading them. I think, too, that with the popular genres we’re familiar with today, while it may be difficult to pinpoint their exact beginnings, eventually the time comes when it is possible for someone to say “I’m going to write a detective novel” (or, even more specifically, a police procedural, or a feminist revision of hard-boiled detective fiction) because that is now a recognizable literary form, with a tradition and conventions of its own. Similarly, just because the margins around a genre are fuzzy doesn’t mean there’s no center. As Regis points out, “formulaic” is usually a pejorative term but all fiction is in fact driven to some extent by formulas; works that clearly belong to a particular genre just embrace and employ them in a more conspicuous way. Though intention is a tricky business, I might go so far as to say that what we now call “genre fiction” is defined by precisely that kind of knowingness on the author’s part (which is also an invitation to the knowing reader): this is the game I’m playing, I know the rules, I use or subvert them at my will, this game board is where I feel at home, my teachers and role models are the ones who showed me how it’s done so that now I can do it my way.

So by my definition, Jane Austen is not a “romance novelist.” Pride and Prejudice definitely has a crucial place in the history of the romance novel (as The Moonstone does in the history of the detective novel), but it’s part of the genre’s origin story, and that’s not what we’re talking about today when we talk about “romance novels.”

Or at least, that’s what I think so far! Now I feel that I may have taken a long time to say something nobody else will find surprising or controversial at all — but we all have to work through things on our own when we’re learning, right?

*Can you tell from these disclaimers that I have learned just how engaged, informed, and opinionated many romance readers and writers are?

**A belated additional point: Also, one era’s “popular” version may well become a later era’s “classic” or literary version (cue obligatory Shakespeare reference).

13 Comments to Is Jane Austen a “Romance Novelist”?

  1. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    April 20, 2016 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    For one thing, Regis’ definition is heterocentric and heteronornative. By definition, it excludes novels about same-sex relationships, and a courtship and betrothal arc is no longer automatically expected in some subgenres.

    Even though it doesn’t have scholarly origins, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) definition is probably more helpful than Regis’s. In the mid-2000s, there was a move afoot to limit romance to stories involving one man and one woman, leaving out other permutations as well as same-sex couples, but that’s been definitively quashed and disavowed by the RWA board of directors.

  2. April 20, 2016 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to indulge in a few thoughts about Regis, really more my reader responses from when I read her book five years ago. First, I’ll lay my cards on the table to say that, overall, I think, except for one element, Regis does a very good job of identifying commonalities in the genre. Seven of her eight elements, as you outlined them above, have been useful to me when I think about how I’m going to approach reviewing and thinking about a romance novel: what worked and didn’t. They give a structure, a skeleton, to some of those things I look for.

    I have to admit, however that I had, like you, I hope I’m not misrepresenting your problems with Regis, many get-to-the-romance-point moments when I was reading her analyses of ur-romance-texts. Regis really wants to trace the romance novel’s origin in classic literature. And she is trying hard to place the “pulp”, for want of a better word, romance novel that we’ve come to know and love, within a Western literary tradition. I agree this isn’t entirely convincing. I certainly never thought of PAMELA as a romance novel, even if it fits her schema, any more than I think of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley as a romance novel, even though it too has all the elements and schema that Regis outlines. I think that Regis fumbles when she insists on placing the romance novel within the tradition of social novels, so it’s with her first element that I have problems, that is, “society defined” … society defined as flawed, or corrupt, and one which the couple’s unity will renew and redeem. Regis herself, and I quote indirectly only from memory, thought this an element that the romance novel neglected, or left out altogether. This should have borne further examination on her part! I think that society defined and eventually redeemed, or renewed is at most only implicit in the romance novel, through the new family unit that the couple forms at the end/HEA. I think that Regis would’ve been better served to attach the pulp, or modern romance novel within the tradition of sentimental novels, or melodrama … but my thought here is “but fantastical” and I don’t have the knowledge to take it further for you. Certainly, many romance novels seem to equally suggest a withdrawal from the greater stage of society into domestic life for both the hero and heroine and thus, that pesky first element is foiled.

    On the other hand, I agree with Regis that P&P is a romance novel. At the same time, I don’t think that Jane Austen is a romance novelist. I hope that makes sense. P&P serves Regis well in that it follows her schema, but again that pesky 1st element remains problematic. Austen’s other novels, such as S&S and Emma especially are NOT romance novels. But I think the genre may claim P&P. Following from that, I think you make a good point in that Regis is less interested in the romance novel per se than what she deems its literary antecedents. Where Regis misses the boat, in my humble estimation, is in not identifying and celebrating (NOT defending, please) the romance novel as a unique genre created by women.

    Just some half-formed thoughts and your indulgence for leaving such an incoherent and lengthy comment! The irony is not lost on me, I hope, that I identify with Austen’s Miss Bates. XD

  3. April 21, 2016 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    I’m not a scholar of literature, nor a professor of same, but I am a lifelong [amateur] reader and thinker. As it happens, I’ve just re-read the major Austen novels for the umpteenth time, and I’m in the midst of my periodic thirst for new understandings of her work. Your post is very timely.

    Though Austen’s novels often center on “romantic” plots, and often include elements that Regis delineates for a romance novel. I would never consider them to be romances or romance novels. I experience them as comedies, perhaps even romantic comedies, but more precisely comedies of manners and/or social satire. Austen uses the “romantic” schema as a vehicle for her satire and for her commentary on the social conventions and, especially on how men and women intersect and interact within the social and economic constraints to which they were confined during the period.

    I think Austen would be disappointed if she thought that her novels were considered primarily, or only, as “romance” novels.

    “A Room with a View” is perhaps closer to a romance in the modern sense, but like Austen, Forster uses the format of a romance as a vehicle for social commentary; clearly the book is more than just a boy-meets-girl-in-eight-elements romance; the point of the book is that the established formulae for courtship and marriage were limited and limiting and had the potential to be dangerously destructive. In both P&P and “Room,” the ideas of personhood and autonomy are explored in the context of the “romantic” experience. Lizzie’s greatest moment comes not in winning Darcy’s love and marrying him [the standard romance ending], but in realizing that she has been narrow-minded, and, especially, in choosing to change. (Darcy has a similar experience of transformational self-understanding; it is their mutual progress toward open-mindedness that enables them to love and respect each other.) Lucy’s greatest moment comes not in loving the “lower class” George or being loved by him, but in being honest with herself (and others) about her feelings (toward George, toward Cecil) and more importantly, in understanding and accepting what that honesty implies for the trajectory of her life, particularly her abandonment of societal and familial expectations.

    What draws me back to Austen over and over again is not just the good story-telling or the “romance” elements, but the deeper content and exploration of broader societal issues that are still of interest.

  4. Bill from PA's Gravatar Bill from PA
    April 21, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Fascinating post. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Rohan.

    I only know the romance genre from the outside as an observer and spouse of a sometime romance reader. I am most familiar with arguments about genre legitimacy and origins from science fiction, and see many parallels with the discussion here, though in SF these arguments seem to have taken place a generation or so ago.

    I have a question about the romance genre. Is there a canon (for want of a better word) of writers or works consciously working or written within the genre that are still read and discussed today? In SF, there are still readers for Asimov, Heinlein, Bester, Dick, Dune, Tiptree, Le Guin, Ellison, Neuromancer, and others stretching from the 1940s up through the present. I think a similar range could be named for mystery. Is there a list of names or works like this for romance?
    I know Georgette Heyer would be on that list, but she and probably Jennifer Crusie from a later date are the only ones I could name. Would Faith Baldwin be on the list? Major romance trends I was aware of in the past seem to have come and gone without leaving a legacy. The “gothic” romances of the 1960s and 70s apparently ended when readers grew tired or progressed beyond its assumptions. I’m sure no one reads the “romantic rape” tales of Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss from the 1970s and 80s for pleasure anymore (these were the type of books read by the group of readers Janice Radway discussed in an early academic work on romance, Reading the Romance, from 1984).

  5. April 21, 2016 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read Regis’ book yet, though I have it and I really should. One thing I wondered, reading this post and comments, is whether you can write a romance novel without being a romance novelist. And that partly has to do with whether you are intentionally writing within certain genre constraints (which isn’t always something we can know). And partly with how your book is read. Austen is beloved by many romance readers and plenty of people read P&P and others for the romance.

    I think that while this kind of structural analysis reveals some interesting similarities (surely one strain that lead to the modern-day romance novel was domestic fiction with a marriage plot) it also obscures important differences. As I said to you on Twitter, one is tone–I’ve never read a romance that treats its characters with the irony Austen does (including her “hero” and “heroine”). I think another big difference is that Austen, among others, is not really interested in romance qua romance, that is, in the feelings. What does falling in love feel like? Like seeing Mr. Darcy’s grounds at Pemberley? Austen really does not tell us, aside from a bit about fine eyes. But genre romance is ALL about what falling in love feels like; feelings are a big part of its point. The feeling most prevalent in P&P is, as far as I can see, mortification. There’s no swooning. The marriage plot is used to educate the characters. Even when the lovers get together at the end, embarrassment of various kinds is a big element of those final scenes–poor Lizzy, telling her mother to spare Darcy the worst of her raptures, for instance. If you only look at structure, you erase all these characterization, tonal and thematic differences which seem to me equally important in the making of a genre.

    And then there are all the more “embarrassing” precursors of the romance novel that are left out: the sentimental, as Miss B says, and 18th century romancers like Eliza Haywood.

    I’m curious about the defensive part, because I remember thinking when I first discovered the online romance community that it was kind of like other forms of relatively new literary scholarship I know a bit about–children’s lit and comics. There is, early on, a lot of arguing about boundaries and terms and fighting for respect (it is comics or graphic novels, e.g.? And do you only do scholarship on the “respectable” ends, or do you talk about superheroes and Archie and Goosebumps books?). The nice thing about George Eliot is you no longer have to make the case for her.

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