These days, readers no longer need to parade their Fabio-graced romance novels in front of all the other passengers on their train or bus. Instead, they can read them discreetly on their e-readers, but why the concern? I once saw a woman on a bus in Chicago, years ago, with a cannily embroidered book jacket cover that read “Dirty Novel” to anyone who cared to look. Most everyone is familiar with “bodice rippers” and likely associates them with the publisher Harlequin, but romances range from chaste kisses and courtship to, ahem, the more modern novels of today and remain one of the most popular forms of women’s literature.
Romance as a genre has its roots in early medieval ballads, but one of the earliest romance novels is Samuel Richardson’s popular 1740 epistolary novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, which was revolutionary in that it focused almost entirely on courtship and did so entirely from the perspective of a female protagonist. Moreover, it was a bestseller of its time, inspiring satires such as Henry Fielding’s Shamela. Another great early writer of romance is Dorothy Osborne. I became familiar with the epistolary works of Dorothy Osborne through a professor who gleefully proclaimed that she was “just wonderful!” with such enthusiasm that I still recall it to this day. Her love letters to Sir William Temple (only her side survives) are available online and their courtship itself reads like the plot for a romance novel.
The novels of Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) continue to be widely read today and have inspired film versions and fan websites too numerous to delve into in this post. This is around the time when romances (and readers of romances) got the reputation of being indulgent and frivolous. In truth, fans of the romance genre are voracious readers. Since the advent of the paperback, they are able to make short work of several novels in a few hours, snuck into hours of the day that would otherwise be lost to waiting rooms, and all with little impact to their wallets. When the media is filled with depressing news, what’s wrong with “following your bliss” as Oprah says? There’s a wide range of imprints covered under the rubric of romance these days. In addition to Harlequin, there are “chick-lit” novels, Christian romances from Steeple Hill, paranormal romances abound, Regency historical, African-American and Urban romance, GLBT romances, and lots of guys in kilts.