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Tale of the Romance Novel

mcurrie's picture
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The Romance novel covers often do not hide their content with their pictures of the "perfect" man and the woman that enters his life.  The reader embarrassed to be seen with a Romance novel may hide them with book covers, on their lap, hoping people believe they are reading a mystery, fantasy, adventure, etc.  But Romance novels can blend in with many of the other genres as it entwines a relationship within a murder mystery, or have supernatural beings that lurk in the night, or be set in far off lands to be explored.  How did the romance novel begin?  Beginning with Shakespeare's romantic comedies to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to today's Nora Roberts, romance has explored the feelings of the heart.  The romance novel exists as an overlap between comedy and romance, from modifying the Greek Comedy to today's contemporary stories, romances have kept similar structures but changed over time.

Even with the changes a romance novel has its basic structure including: defining society, the meeting, creating a barrier, creating attraction, setting a declaration point, having a point of ritual death, recognition, and the betrothal4.  By defining society the author creates the setting for the novel.  Society can be one of the conflicts or barriers the hero and heroine encounter as they deal with the pressures of society.  In creating a barrier the author can choose it to be physical or mental.  Of course the novel needs to have the two characters meet, to look upon one another with interest and sometimes with hate.  Between these two characters there needs to be attraction, some sort of tension or knowledge that one another exists.  After the attraction has grown the characters declare their love or caring for the person that has entered their heart.  A point of ritual death can follow or be before the declaration.  Ritual death is the moment when the union between the two characters seems impossible.  But the barrier and ritual death are overcome at the period of recognition.  Recognition opens the way for the betrothal that leads to the joining of the hero and heroine in marriage.  With all eight elements the courtship between the hero and heroine begins with conflict and ends with happiness.

To begin the evolution of the romance the writers had to start with past writings including Greek comedies, ballads, and Shakespeare.  The Greek comedies brought laughter to the reader as a young man falls for a woman and runs into a few missteps before he can claim his bride.  There were also the male ballads oriented toward the hero's of the time as tributes to their bravery2.  And of course Shakespeare's fantasies which can be called romantic comedies1.  His plays "promoted a new idea of individualism," expressing a demand for freedom and liberty while also focusing on the family and the relation between the spouses4.  Within these ballads and plays the focus remained on the man with the lady in the background. Although in Shakespeare the ladies may play a role in the banter between other characters.  There was also the novel Incognita by William Congreve which focused on the male characters of father and son and their finding love at a masquerade.  The novel begins with the hero's falling in love at first sight, with love being defined as a man's affair4.  It was with these forms of writing that the romance novel was able to flourish and create the new genre.

As Shakespeare's belief in finding a compassionate marriage began to spread the focus of romances went from the hero's to the heroine's point of view.  The romance writers rarely wrote about love at first sight as seen in Incognita. They believed that love at first sight could be a mask that blinds the characters from finding true love.  Sight became important for insight to the man the heroine falls in love with.  The heroine is not blinded by love and does not make faulty discussions about their match.  Their eyes are open to all faults to know and love.  To begin in 1740 the first romance to be a best seller by Samuel Richardson brings the tale of rags to riches at the point of view of a ladies maid named Pamela, which is also the title of the novel.  The author uses Shakespeare's idea of freedom and made it part of the barrier.  Pamela must overcome her servitude to become free.  Following Pamela is one of the best known novels written by Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice with the stories complete exploration of marriage and the overcoming of many barriers.  Austen's work avoids a story that presents woman as subordinate and inferior.  Instead it presents a work that grants women more freedom and respectability4 which was unusual in society or other novels of the time.  Then Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte Bronte as a feminist statement and a novel about education giving a woman freedom to run her life.  Jane rises on her own two feet from being an orphan living with an abusive family to becoming a governess and in the end marrying the man she loves.  She is an orphan that is cast upon her own resources and exerts her independence4. Finally, the author of a Room with a View which was his only romance novel that ended happily in married.  E.M Forester believed that ending a novel with marriage was problematic and wrote about the idea of separation which4.  In his public address "Pessimism in Literature" Forester looks at two ways to end the romance novel, with marriage or a scene of separation, where marriage is the beginning and the writer explores the problems that occur after the wedding bells ring.  The 20th century writers explored Forester's idea and expanded the amount of problems and barriers the two characters could overcome to be together.

The 20th century novels changed the content of past romances and added their own twists.  The heroine has freedom throughout the novel, they are not suppressed by societies' rules of a woman only goal is to be married and have children.  The heroines have their own money, jobs, and believe themselves to have the power to find love.  Along with the heroine the hero also changed and became the alpha male, the man most women would swoon over and some would avoid.  This hero can be mean and moody with mocking eyes and an arrogant air of self assurance3.  Because the more rough-hewn and obdurate the man, the sweeter the triumph3.  This is the man that remains the challenge for the heroine, the man to be tamed, and the rake that provides the best husband.  The hero is the man that evokes emotion and even the will for the heroine to change them. 

Most present authors utilized the new hero and heroine as they expanded the boundaries, beginning with Georgette Heyer, who wrote Regency novels which are set in the period between 1811 and 1820.  Heyer did not write a typical Regency heroine that obeyed her mother or father's decisions; instead she placed a 20th century independent woman as the heroine.  Her hero's don't remain obedient to society either as they spends their time gambling, drinking, and keeping mistresses while also retaining the respect of the ton.   Mary Stewart perfected the hybrid of romance and mystery.  Stewart ties in the ritual death as a part of the reality of the characters life being in danger instead of a character having a scare of a social death as seen in Pride and Prejudice.  Janet Dailey introduced the western romances.  Her novels settings remain far from the civilized streets of London4 in Heyer's novels, and instead are set in the remote uncivilized world of the Wild West.  The two characters remain unconstrained by society's rules and instead have to bend to the rules of the harsh environment.  She uses the environment to bring the characters together as they face the elements on the frontier4.  Then there is Jane Ann Krentz who has written futuristic romances.  Krentz defined the dangerous man and the woman that makes him safe to be around.  She gives her heroines the energy, perseverance, adventurous spirit, intelligence4, and other characteristics that are needed to tame the man she encounters and falls in love with.  Her heroines are as strong as the hero's.  Finally, Nora Robert's, she has written many novels that fit into a wide range of sub genres in the romance, for example supernatural and time travel romances.  She focuses on the importance of the heroine to have individualism, financial independence, and a wit to compete in a battle of wills with the hero.  All the writers have contributed to the present romance with the new heroine's and settings to tell the story of courtship.

The romances have changed with shifts in the focus of the novels, beginning with the plays and novels that focus on the male character then changing to the female's point of view.  To balance the act is the 20th century the writers who have brought the male characters to the front as equals with the heroine's.  Although some of the present writers focus on the female, others write both views as the heroes and heroines come to term with their emotions.  Romance novels have evolved from many novels that are studied like Shakespeare and Greek plays.  Some have become classics Pamela and Pride and Prejudice, many have become best sellers, and others become books to be enjoyed by readers. 

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1)      Brander, Matthews. "The Development of Drama: Greek and Roman Comedy." Charles  

       Scribner's Sons 1912 74-106. Web.19 Apr 2009      


2)      Cowling, Claire. "History of the Romance Novel." 21 Aug 2008. suite101.

       19 Apr 2009  


3)      Krentz, Jayne Ann. Romance Writers on the Appeal Dangerous Men and Adventurous

       Women of the Romance. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

4)      Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia, PA: University of

       Pennsylvania Press, 2003.



pekru's picture

To be honest, we all know

To be honest, we all know what type of college student reads Pride and Prejudice (women). I have yet to meet a female who’s heart doesn’t melt at the thought that Mr. Darcey and Elizabeth Bennett might actually end up together. Couple that with the Keira Knightley movie (and for some of the more enthusiastic, the Colin Firth mini series), and college females just love Jane Austen’s prized work. Now I need to do something incredibly manly, someone throw me a football.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Diversity and evolution of romance novels

"Some have become classics ... , many have become best sellers, and others become books to be enjoyed by readers"

What distinguishes among them?  Can one read some without needing to hide them? Why?  And what is the appeal of those one needs to hide?