This module explores the phenomenon and development of the popular historical romance from the start of the twentieth century to the present day. You will also examine the history of reading the romance, from the start of mass-market romance publishing in the 1920s to the recent phenomenon of literary blogging and fandom.
Popular romance fiction today accounts for around 13% of the total adult fiction market (of which historical romance in particular has at least a 34% share), with annual sales of over $1billion. Over 80% of the readers of romance fiction are women, and over 70% of them talk about and recommend the romance novels they are reading. Romance fiction is written largely by women, for women, about women protagonists and about women’s experiences and fantasies. Yet it is a genre that is dismissed by the literary establishment as escapist, anti-feminist, and troubling in its romanticising of male authority and sexual violence. As literary scholars (but perhaps also romance readers ourselves), are we simply to ignore the popular romance, or should we examine and attempt to understand its complicated yet persistent appeal for women readers over the changing contexts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?
In this module you will read a range of historical ‘romance’ novels from the Regency romance, to the mid-late twentieth century ‘bodice-ripper’, to the more recent phenomenon of the hybrid historical fantasia or paranormal/time-travelling romance. You will analyse the archetypal conventions, narrative structures, plot patterns and themes of the romance genre, exploring the commercial ‘category’ romance’ of Mills & Boon or Harlequin, and the bestsellers of acclaimed ‘Queens’ of romance such as Heyer and Holt, alongside and in dialogue with examples of the contemporary middlebrow (eg. Gregory), and what might be described as elite or ‘literary’ romance (eg. Fowles).
Applying your literary critical skills to the romance genre, you will explore the formal characteristics, strategies and reworkings of the genre, examining for example the relationship between the concepts of ‘history’ and ‘romance’, and of ‘authenticity’ or verisimilitude and ‘fantasy’, as these are played out within the historical romance novel. You will also examine and engage with key feminist and postfeminist debates on the gendered status of the romance genre.
The module will help you to set your exploration of the romance genre within the context of broader literary and sociological issues such as the sexual/textual politics of the literary canon, the gendering of critical acclaim, and the disjunction of elite and popular reading practices, as well as questions such as how we define ‘good’ literature, and how we might negotiate reading critically and reading pleasurably at the same time.
Texts studied vary slightly from year to year but may include:
- Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1903)
- Edith Maude Hull, The Sheik (1919);
- Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades (1926) and Venetia (1958)
- Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek (1941)
- Kathleen Winsor, Forever Amber (1944)
- Victoria Holt, The Shivering Sands (1969)
- John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)
- Diana Gabaldon, Outlander [Books 1-3: Outlander; Dragonfly in Amber; Voyager, 1991-1993)
- Philippa Carr, The Other Boleyn Girl (2001).
Assessment: 4,000-word essay