History of the Modern Romance Novel
Booklists with these titles are everywhere. Lists upon lists of romance novels to “spice up your life” seem to be one of the only constants throughout the upheaval of recent years. In the wake of COVID-19, romance novel readership increased, along with mysteries and thrillers, and it isn’t hard to see why.
Romance novels have a very basic structure to them: The meet cute, rejection of the relationship, the fall into acceptance, the almost break up, the declaration of love, and the happily ever after. Romance novelist Robin Lovett wrote an article for diyMFA outlining the basic 11 step structure of romance novels. The knowledge that no matter what there will be a happy ending is essential to romance fans.
The modern romance novel as we know it is entangled with the idea of the Harlequin Romance Novel. Harlequin Books Limited – now called Harlequin Enterprises – is a Canadian book press founded in 1949 by Ricahrd Boonycastle as a book reprint taking advantage of the burgeoning paperback industry. In the beginning, the company published mainly sensationalist westerns and mysteries. In the early 1950s, Harlequin started reprinting romance novels and then, in the late 1950s Harlequin began a relationship with British publisher Mills & Boon, a major romance publisher.
Harlequin acquired the North American distribution rights of Mills & Boon in 1957 and then in 1971 Harlequin purchased Mills & Boon. At the time of the purchase, Harlequin was only publishing one line – Harlequin Romance. Those two words quickly became synonymous with the entire genre.
“What turns a normal woman into a Harlequin junkie?” a 1973 TIMES article entitled ‘Enterprise: What Women Want, Or Kitsch Rewarded’ asked.
“The formula requires three ingredients,” the article said. “An exotic setting … a demure heroine whose modest station in life is similar to the reader’s, and a usually rich, arrogant hero who initially patronizes the heroine, then sweeps her off her feet … into a blissful, totally unLiberated marriage.”
Harlequin romance is even its own genre on Goodreads. Books like “The Tycoon’s Pregnant Mistress”, “The Bride’s Baby” and “Wanted by Her Lost Love” are just some of the top titles to show up on the website’s listings.
“Harlequin” and “trashy romance” are often said in the same breath. “Trashy romance” books are focused more on the physical, steamy sexual interactions of the characters, with a flimsily constructed plot that serves only to further said sex, with no real concern given to characters or motivations.
However, most Harlequin romances are actually far more tame than people may think from the covers, which often feature muscular, half–naked men in open shirts clutching dainty maidens in their arms.
“Curses never go beyond an impetuous hero’s ‘God’s teeth!’” the TIMES article said.
“Sex never gets further than a kiss, but manages to crop up in perfervid abundance anyway,”
The rise of e-publishing led to a shift in the industry. Electronic publishers and self-publishing allowed more indie authors who served a particular niche to reach an audience they might not have found before. They were also much more forgiving of explicit content.
Tielle St. Clare is a self-described author of “gay erotic werewolve romance novels.” Her first book, “Dragon’s Kiss”, was published in 2004 by a traditional publisher but after that, she worked with a small e-publisher for ten years, until they went out of business. She self-publishes everything now.
“When I started, there were what we’d call sexy romances, but I would always finish the book and go, ‘It was good, but it could’ve used more sex,’” St. Clare said. “The publisher that I was with for a number of years started writing erotic romances. So you could find erotica books, but they didn’t have an actual romance in them, they didn’t necessarily have a happy ending. And so we switched with the erotic romance. It was still a romance, but it was just erotic and explicit.”
St. Clare’s books may seem extra-ordinary – she primarily writes about shapeshifters, werewolves and dragons – but escapism is a key factor in romance novels of all kinds. Many Harlequins take place in a romanticized medieval period or feature a dashing Scottish highlander or pirate as the love interest. A particularly interesting subset of this genre can be found in the popularity of Amish romance novels, whose modest love stories surrounded by calls for chastity and tradition primarily appeal to Evangelical Christian women.
Every kind of literature functions as a space outside our own life. The escape may not always be that of a joyous search for true love, but an escape from our real life is always at the heart. But romance is viewed as fluff, seen as silly, which feeds into the levels of shame and derisiveness around the genre.
“My theory is that the people who critique books were trained to critique in a literary world that started off looking at male writers, so they don’t necessarily look at the things that women find intriguing,” St. Clare said. “I think that just comes from [the way] we look at books that have certain things as being good … Why is it that a book that has a sad ending is considered a good book, and a book that has a happy ending isn’t? … Those tragedies always seem to win out over the joyful stories.”
The media enjoyed by middle aged women and young girls has always been viewed under a much more critical lens than other forms of media. The entire genre of Young Adult has been derided and made fun of for the repetitive plot points and copy and pasted love interests over and over again – and whether or not the media is actually good is not the point. The part that matters is that these pieces of media – YA for teen girls, romance novels for older women – bring them joy, and exist to bring joy. But that all gets ignored for the fact that these stories are not considered serious, and are not seen as valuable pieces of art.
Romance novels are not always completely serious, they may not always have the most sound plot, there may not be any plot aside from two characters playing ‘will they, won’t they’ for 40,000 words – but that’s not really the point. Readers want to take a moment away from this world and sink into another, one where the only thing you have to worry about is your love life, where romance may not necessarily be easy but a happy ending is guaranteed.
“Let me tell you, people get really mad if there’s not a happy ending,” St. Clare said. “There are authors that I won’t read because they didn’t provide a happy ending.”
This isn’t limited just to traditional books. The need for and guarantee of a happy ending is what drives much of the contributions to fanfiction. The concept of a “fix it fic” – where characters who originally had a bad ending in the source material have their ending re-written for a better outcome – is prevalent in fanfiction, most but not all of which are romantic in nature. In the case of fanfiction, the familiarity that defines the romance genre is two-fold: One, you are guaranteed a happy ending, and two, the happy ending involves characters the reader is already familiar with and attached to.
In a time where everything seems on the edge of falling apart, it’s really no surprise that people would turn to familiar, cozy, predictable stories for comfort. Romance is secure, when our days are not, and it offers a hope that we too might find a love so great, stories are written about it in a time where hope is hard to grasp.
“I think those of us that read romance we like it partially because we know how it’s going to end,” St. Clare said. “We know there’s going to be a happy ending, and I think there’s a lot of stress in the world … I think women read books knowing that this isn’t reality. Life is really hard and relationships are really hard and … you don’t always get that kind of life experience, of all the pain and the work that goes into a relationship.”
NewtAndia is a first-year journalism major who still wants to know why sexy novels are considered spicy. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Art by Art Editor Adam Dee.