The next major shift in romance novels can’t be really traced or pinpointed to one author or time. After the bodice ripper, organic changes began to seep into the rhetoric of the romance novel. But by the mid-nineties, it is evident that heroines have fully embraced the sexuality their predecessors had so many problems with. Wendell and Tan explain that, “They have sex before marriage with somebody who isn’t the hero. They aren’t presented as pure, pristine vessels of womanhood to make their bows before a monarch (well, most of them are not, anyway) and they may have even had (Gasp!) enjoyable nonhero-bestowed orgasms” (Wendell/Tan 884). In other words, romance heroines have full caught up with their non-fictional counterparts. The heroines can now represent modern women rather than idealized archetypes that have to live within a set of limiting guidelines and roles.
But even this change took a little time in reaching its fruition. The romance novel of the 1990s still has the more forceful elements of the bodice rippers and the Gothics that came before it. Phillips says in her 1992 essay “The Romance and the Empowerment of Women” that “The heroine isn’t as big as [the hero] is; she isn’t as strong, as old, as worldly; many times she isn’t as well educated. Yet despite all these limitations she confronts him—not with physical strength but with intelligence and courage” (Phillips Romance 56). Traces of this can be seen in the bodice rippers, but Phillips really shows this with the main characters in Nobody’s Baby But Mine, published in 1997. Dr. Jane Darlington is an up-and-coming physicist, who through a course of overly-logical decisions on her part, becomes entangled with Chicago Stars quarterback Cal Bonner. Right off we see a new dichotomy begin to form between these two characters: brains vs. brawn, rather than weak vs. strong. Both characters are what could be characterized as “affective individuals” before even meeting each other. Their relationship is solely about the possible formation of a companionate marriage. Neither needs the other.
Jane in particular is an interesting character. Even during this more progressive decade, it was still rare to see a heroine work in the hard sciences. Rather than asking readers to suspend disbelief and forget the world in which they lived, where women in the hard sciences were few and far between and often not given the same respect as men, Phillips makes a point of bringing this up in one of the early scenes of the book between Jane and her boss at a prestigious lab. Her boss asks her to do extra work claiming, “You’re quite young, Jane, and not as well established as the others.” She was also a woman, and he was a sexist jerk. Years of self-discipline prevented her from saying any of this out loud, especially since she would end up hurting herself more than him” (Phillips 58-9). In this short little scene, Phillips captures a reality for many women in the workplace. They could work along side men and do jobs just as well if not better than them, but they still could not necessarily confront their sexist behavior. Jane, though in full possession of her own agency and affective individualism, still has to play by the rules of society.
Jane’s relationship with Cal is highly confrontational from the beginning. Like Wulfgar and Mr. Darcy, he is a leader, a man of action who expects to be obeyed without question. As Wendell and Tan explain,
romance novel heroes are still, by and large, a testosterone-laden bunch, with tree-trunk thighs and a near-magical ability to vanquish villains with nothing more than the power of their utterly huge, utterly massive, utterly intimidating…guns, when a veritable army of people have failed. The heroes just aren’t quite as shouty and grabby and punishy as they used to be (Wendell/Tan 375).
In many of the descriptions of Cal, we can see a descendant of Wulfgar, menacing and somewhat brutal. Neither of them are as refined as Darcy, although in Cal’s case it is more for attraction purposes than the need to leave room for the force that is necessary in Wulfgar. The template for the hero is the same, but he has become more aware of the emotional element to his character, which is seen by the fact that his point of view is now used to an almost equal degree with that of the heroine.
Jane takes after Elizabeth a bit more than Aislinn does and is not afraid to fight back against Cal’s chauvinistic behavior, she is the alpha heroine who has reached her full potential. Phillips does, however, draw a parallel between Jane and women like Aislinn. Jane and Cal spend the off-season in his hometown, but because Cal views their marriage as temporary, he refuses to let her interact with his friends and family;
She barely saw Cal, something that should have eased her mind, but didn’t, since she realized she had virtually imprisoned her. She had no car, he didn’t offer to lend her his, and the only people she saw were deliverymen and the two Korean cleaning women. Like a feudal lord with a moated castle, he had deliberately cut her off from the town and its people…Unlike a medieval noblewoman, she could put an end to her imprisonment anytime she wanted. A phone call to the taxi company would have done the job (Phillips 119).
Phillips shows that modern women romance heroines are very much in possession of their own agency. Jane makes her own choices, despite how much Cal would like to control her. Modern life has put them on equal footing, but as a writer, it is difficult to determine how the relationship should develop without the physical, economic, or intellectual inequality that previously separated heroes and heroines. The answer comes from the emotional elements of the story. Over the years between Woodiwiss and Phillips, the male point of view became a standard part of the romance novel and gradually moved deeper to explore his psyche as well as those of the heroines. Emotional conflicts became the meat and potatoes of romance novels, rather than just the side dish.
Having someone to fight back against him mellows Cal, although it takes him a while to realize that he loves Jane. But more than that, Cal helps Jane learn to be comfortable in her own skin. Her intelligence has driven away everyone else, but Cal readily accepts and challenges that part of Jane;
Maybe she wasn’t anxious to avoid this battle because it would be with Cal. All her life she’d been so polite, so dignified, so careful not to offend. But Cal was impatient with politeness, unimpressed by dignity, and impervious to offense. She didn’t have to watch what she said or mind her manners. She could simply be herself (Phillips 241).
The ability to be oneself is a strong theme in most romance novels. The struggle to fit within the expectations of society is source of trouble for both men and women. The goal in modern romances is to find that person with whom you are both challenged by and comfortable with so that you can achieve a new level of personal success. With Jane by his side, Cal realizes what he wants to do once his football career is over. We’re told at the end of the novel that Jane has become more successful than ever since meeting Cal.
We see the early evidence of the “perfect partnership” in Nobody’s Baby, but Nora Roberts’ most recent romance, Happy Ever After, shows the culmination of the romance Jane Austen saw for Elizabeth and Darcy. Parker Brown is the modern Lizzie Bennett – a confident, successful woman who runs her own wedding planning business with her three best friends. An alpha heroine fully in charge of her own life, Parker doesn’t need a man to find her place within society. She doesn’t need romance because as a wedding planner, she facilitates everyone else’s “happily-ever-after.” On the surface, Malcolm Kavanaugh is an atypical Darcy with his greasy jeans and his motorcycle, but, underneath, the honor, integrity, and fierce loyalty has altered little in two hundred years. Malcolm fully embodies every aspect of the alpha hero that Wendell and Tan describe and does so in a way that challenges and compliments Parker’s alpha heroine attributes.
The tension between Parker and Malcolm comes from their similar personalities and the different ways they approach things. Regis claims that in Roberts’ work “courtship is a matter of wills and wit” (Regis 204), just as it was with Austen. Both want to understand how to fix things, how to make things better, but where Malcolm goes with the flow and observes, Parker organizes and manages until everything meets her satisfaction. Difference is the key word between these two, as it was with Lizzie and Darcy. As Parker’s long-time housekeeper tells Malcolm, “’I will say she’s all too used to the men who go after her being predictable. You wouldn’t be. The girl wants love, and with it the rest she grew up with. That kind of partnership, respect, friendship. She’ll never settle for less, and shouldn’t” (Roberts 144). The wise Mrs. Grady sums up what every modern heroine wants and what every modern hero eventually has to admit he wants. Some, like Lizzie, want this because it is the opposite of what their parents had, but others are like Parker and want to achieve what the previous generation worked hard to establish. As an individual, Parker has every material thing she needs. The only thing that can enhance her life any further is finding a partner to enter into a companionate marriage with, but it is not essential to her happiness.
Parker’s main conflict with Malcolm comes not from any physical threat on his part; there is never any language of force such as we see in Woodiwiss or Phillips. The main conflict for them comes from the same problem that occurred between Lizzie and Darcy – a lack of communication. Unlike Lizzie, Parker is able to vocalize this problem; “she’d come to understand, was well on her way to accepting, that Malcolm was the partner she wanted for those promises, for that lifetime. Still, she mused, partnership required that sharing, a depth of trust, a knowing” (Roberts 247). Malcolm still exerts the alpha male tendency to hide his feelings and his past hurts while requiring her to tell him everything. But Parker, as an alpha heroine, knows better than to settle for that. She’s worth more and she makes sure that Malcolm knows that in no uncertain terms. Modern romance heroines have a grasp of their worth that is subtly expressed by their predecessors, but never fully addressed. They can now say that what they want and not back down until they get it.
Happy Ever After is the fourth book in a series. The first three books revolve around Parker’s friends and business partners finding their perfect romantic partners. In this book, we see these three couples on the verge of marriage and Roberts shows what exactly a modern marriage should be, what should come after the “happily-ever-after” ending we see in Austen. At the end of the book, Malcolm is searching for Parker to finally declare his love for her. Along the way, his friends give him the words to explain the type of relationship he and Parker need to have. Jack, the hero of Bed of Roses, notes, “Who knew? The big party? That’ll be a kick, but it’s the rest, the rest of my life I’m waiting for. Emma’s… She’s Emma. That’s all she needs to be” (Roberts 322). These women spend their lives around weddings and romance, but it is the after that matters. “Happy Ever After” doesn’t mean the story ends. It means it is just beginning for the modern romance heroes and heroines. Roberts shows that the companionate marriage isn’t about alteration or change. It is about acceptance, affection, and the ability to work in tandem with your partner. This is what Austen gives us glimpses of in the final chapter of Pride and Prejudice but can’t fully articulate within the literary conventions of the time, which dictated that a romance end at marriage.
In 21st century contemporary romances, the characters are able to admit that it is not just romance that is important. It is the building of a relationship and establishment of a life based on love and companionship that matter. Parker’s brother, Del, reflects to Malcolm, “It makes it more solid, more real, more important. I’ve been to countless weddings, but I don’t think I really got that until Laurel, until I wanted to make it more solid and real and important” (Roberts 322). These men have the words that Darcy and Wulfgar lacked, the words that Cal had trouble understanding, and they are more than willing to take that step. The alpha male of the 21st century still has demons to battle internally, but instead of struggling on his own or putting them aside for the heroine, he works through them with her and their relationship is stronger for it.
To exert agency means to choose a specific action. Each hero and heroine face moments of choice over the course of the romance novel and ultimately they choose to be together rather than separate. They choose to enter into a partnership that allows them to become better, more fulfilled people than they would have been separately. Many times, they would be just fine on their own, but their lives would be a little duller, a little less challenging.
Jane Austen was a woman before her time when she created Elizabeth and Darcy and the couples that followed them. The companionate marriage was still in its infancy, made possible because of affective individualism, but it was difficult to articulate within the society in which it was trying to exist. But the desire for the full promise of this type of marriage to exist allowed for romance novels to continue to flourish. Women had to struggle through the legal and social hurdles of the 200 years between Pride and Prejudice and Happy Ever After before Austen’s vision could be fully realized. The romance novel not only provided a platform for these hurdles to be discussed, but the safe world of fiction provided them a place to show modern women how to achieve all of the potential of a companionate marriage. Romance novels are often chosen for “escapist” reading material, but they provide a valuable realm for women to learn about their own value and how to exert their agency within society.
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