For the month of February, it seemed only fitting to take a closer look at the romance fiction genre. Here in the United States, romance is a best-selling genre, averaging a third of all popular fiction sold each year. Despite this following, little is known about the genre, and many assumptions are made as to its content. Romance does not have to be all “heaving bosoms” and “glistening pectorals.” Taking a brief look at the history of the romance fiction and some classical examples of truly great romantic writing, you will see that romance is a diverse and engaging fiction genre.
The term “romance” was first used in the Middle Ages to distinguish popular material from the more scholastic works of the time. Romance closely followed the lives of Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, and King Arthur. It introduced mythological elements (gods, magic, fantastical creatures, etc.) and heroes overcoming evil and danger to save their maidens.
The focus of medieval romance was not, in fact, the love between the two characters but on the adventure. The chivalrous knight fighting (and, of course, defeating) hideous villains to win the affections of a princess would be more of the focus than whether or not the princess even likes him.
Le Morte d’Arthur, by Thomas Malory, is a great example of this period of romantic writing. It follows the life of King Arthur, which is essential given the parameters of romance fiction of the times, and no emphasis is placed on the actual relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere but that he goes on adventures and risks his life to earn the maiden for himself in the end.
It wasn’t until after the 1800s that romance moved to more relational views of love as the focus of its story, emphasizing themes such as love overcoming obstacles, courting practices, and faithfulness in adversity. Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, and Charlotte Brontë are among the leaders of this period of romance fiction.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice deals principally with issues regarding marriage and courting in higher-class societies—especially whether to marry for love, or to enhance your position in life (and characters in the book do both). The main character, Elizabeth Bennett, is determined to marry someone she loves, much to the chagrin of her mother who tries to force eligible (meaning “approved”) men on her. In the end, she realizes her love for Mr. Darcy after deconstructing her prejudices against him. Their love is able to overcome the obstacles that were keeping them apart.
In Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, we learn of Catherine and Heathcliff and the love that leads to their downfall. Like Pride and Prejudice, society plays a very influential role in their relationship. Despite Heathcliff’s all-consuming love for her, they fail to overcome the hurdle of Catherine’s high societal class and, as a result, are never together. Heathcliff’s faithfulness is more of the focus, since their love does not overcome their obstacles.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, features Jane, who grew up extremely poor and now finds herself a governess in the wealthy home of Edward Rochester. Unlike Wuthering Heights, the difference in social status does not interfere with the relationship between Jane and Edward. At their wedding Jane learns that Edward is already married to another woman. Jane, a woman of incredibly high morals, refuses to stay in her relationship and flees. While gone, she realizes that love is the more important than her high morals, and she returns to Edward. The other woman and Jane’s morals are the obstacles she faces, and love wins out over both of them.
The major change in today’s modern romance is the addition of two strict criteria: 1.) the story needs to focus on the relationship or love between two people, and 2.) it needs to end positively. The reader should finish the story with the belief that the characters’ relationship and love will endure the rest of their lives. There are many stories that people would group into the romance genre that do not fit these criteria, and therefore would be better placed among women’s fiction or mainstream contemporary fiction.
The modern romance genre is also incredibly diverse. There are eleven sub-genres within the romance genre alone. They are: contemporary, historical, futuristic, fantasy, inspirational, paranormal, regency (set during the 19th century), romantic suspense, romantica (a blend of romance and erotica), time travel, and western.
Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, is an example of modern romance fiction belonging to the historical/time travel sub-genres. Our heroine, Claire, is on vacation in the Scottish highlands when she is transported to the mid-1700s and into the middle of a skirmish between the British and Scottish clansmen. Questions surround her sudden presence and appearance, but the clansmen take her in for her protection. She meets Jamie, whom she is forced to marry, and they end up falling in love. She is faced with making a choice between her new life and her old one, and in the end she chooses love and stays with Jamie.
Perhaps it is its incredible diversity that earns romance one of the best-selling slots in the fiction market. Though all romance is centered on the universal themes of “love” and “happily ever after,” the means used to achieve these ends differ greatly from story to story, invalidating the cookie-cutter stereotype of romance story plots.