Posted in I Choose "I Do"

I Choose “I Do” – Contemporary Romance

Contemporary Romance

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.


Austen, Jane. Emma. Kindle ed. Public Domain. Electronic.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Kindle ed. Public Domain. Electronic.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Kindle ed. Public Domain. Electronic.

Donald, Robyn. “Mean, Moody, and Magnificent: The Hero in Romance Literature.” Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1992. Print.

Handler, Richard, and Daniel A. Segal. “Hierarchies of Choice: The Social Construction of Rank in Jane Austen.” American Ethnologist 12.4 (1985): 691-706. Print.

Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. Nobody’s Baby but Mine. New York: Avon, 1997. Print.

Phillips, Susan E. “The Romance and the Empowerment of Women.” Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1992. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2003. Print.

Roberts, Nora. Montana Sky. New York: Berkley, 2006. Print.

“The Romance Genre Overview | Romance Writers of America.” Home | Romance Writers of America. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. <;.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. Abridged ed. London: Penguin, 1979. Print.

Walzer, Arthur E. “Rhetoric and Gender in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.” College English 57.6 (Oct 1995): 688-707. Print.

Wendell, Sarah, and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: the Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Woodiwiss, Kathleen E. The Wolf and the Dove. New York, NY: Avon, 1974. Print.

Posted in I Choose "I Do"

I Choose “I Do” – Georgette Heyer, Kathleen Woodiwiss, and “Bodice Rippers”

Georgette Heyer, Kathleen Woodiwiss, and “Bodice Rippers”

The establishment of companionate matches as part of the romance novel doesn’t really undergo much of a change from the style set up by Austen until over 100 years later. Georgette Heyer begins to write romance novels in the 1920s, a time when women were finally gaining legal control over themselves in and out of marriage. The previous model for heroines who still conformed to society while subtly subverting it would no longer serve its purpose. According to Regis,

the expression of the societal disorder is largely within the heroine and hero themselves and the twentieth century hero makes the largest new contribution of this kind of disorder and to its being made orderly by the betrothal at the end of the work. Ordering society is now an issue of taming or healing the hero (Regis 114).

The shift from the match promoting a “new” idea such as affective individualism to one exploring different ways that affective individualism and agency allow a woman to bring order from chaos comes from Heyer’s writing. Everything during this time period becomes a bit “more;” heroes start off more akin to Wickham than Darcy and heroines are much more assertive versions of Elizabeth. Despite these differences, they still make the same choice as their romance novel predecessors: marriage. Heyer is writing during a transitional phase for women as far as the choice to assert their own affective individualism versus social expectations. By writing more modern females into stories similar to Austen texts, she provides them with reminders of their own ability and agency. They can take on these strong males and make a life by their sides in a companionate marriage rather than behind them.

Unfortunately, women of the 1970s were still suffering from many of the same ambiguities of societal place that the women Heyer started writing for were. A new component was also added to their ability to exert their free will: their sexuality. Sexuality is a part of society that has always been there, but was never openly discussed prior to the advent of Second Wave Feminism. Women were not supposed to enjoy sex. According to Wendell and Tan, “no other fiction genre focuses sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular in the context of happy romantic relationships” (Wendell/Tan 864). Because romance is generally a genre for women by women, it was positioned to take on this newly public female sexuality in a positive way.

So how did romance writers of the 1970s make this new idea palatable to their readers while remaining socially acceptable and relevant? Continuing in the style of Austen and Heyer, they write from a female perspective, but they use the plot devices of old Gothic novels like those written by Anne Radcliffe to create an air of sexual danger that fulfills itself where those did not. According to Wendell and Tan, “The eventual taming of a sexually dangerous and aggressive hero thus allowed women a safe space to explore—and invert—the power relationships in a rape. Romance-novel rape ultimately placed women in control” (Wendell/Tan 2346). The language of force and danger of the novel allowed for women to not only come to terms with the idea that enjoying sex might be acceptable, but to also see the extremities of their own situations from a historical lens and find a way to take control of their own bodies by embracing their sexuality.

These highly problematic novels have become known as “bodice rippers,” mostly because of the sexually implicit covers favored in the marketing minds of the 1970s that have only recently been put aside. While there are obvious pitfalls within the rhetoric of this movement, particularly surrounding rape, these novels did serve a purpose within the overall progression of the role of agency and affective individualism in the evolution of the romance novel. Before exploring the positive aspects of the “bodice rippers” it is important to address the problematic elements and try and interpret them within the context in which they were written.

Kathleen Woodiwiss, the de facto “founder” of this movement makes very deliberate choices in her depiction and expression of the threat to the female body. In her second novel, The Wolf and the Dove, set during the Norman conquering of England in 1066, the language surrounding the early interactions between the heroine, Aislinn, the daughter of a Saxon nobleman, and Wulfgar, the Norman knight who takes possession of her father’s land, is steeped in a rhetoric of force and female objectification. Woodiwiss sets this book in the Middle Ages to allow for more danger and patriarchal absolutism to show a contrast in Aislinn’s situation by the end of the book. In one of their early encounters, before Wulfgar has literally forced himself upon Aislinn, Woodiwiss inserts this exchange, “’I had no inkling your strength was so lacking that you must chain me while you do your worst to me.’ ‘It saves energy,’ he laughed. ‘And I can see I’ll need all the assist I can get to tame the shrew’” (Woodiwiss 62). Now, he doesn’t go so far as to actually chain her during sex, but he does keep her chained every night prior to that. Not only does he try to threaten her with his mere physical size and presence, Woodiwiss has him take steps to include the trappings of slavery and complete subjugation. But even as he takes away all outward signs of her agency, Aislinn, expressing the characteristics of affective individualism, does her best to hold her ground and find a way out of her situation.

Wulfgar is very determined to “claim” Aislinn. Woodiwiss steps back past Jane Austen to a time when women had no legal rights in order to allow an extreme alpha hero to exist. What little we see of his point of view in the first half of the novel is all about making her “his.” This is very common language for romance novels, even modern ones, but there is an added intensity to this mission in the bodice rippers, probably due to the underrepresentation of the hero’s perspective. Directly after their first (forced) sexual encounter, Woodiwiss makes this claiming have a lingering effect on the heroine, even on the sensory level; “Wulfgar’s sweat still clung to her and she could smell his scent upon her” (Woodiwiss 127). In the mentality of Aislinn and the reader, even as she physical escapes from Wulfgar, it is only illusory at best. At this point in the novel, he possesses the upper hand because he has possessed her body, but she does her best to scrub away this evidence, still fighting for her own individuality. Aislinn is struggling to gain some sense of affective individualism but she doesn’t know how to do so yet.

This is where feminist readings of bodice rippers usually stop. They only see this language of force and possession of the female body and don’t look further into the narrative. At one point early in their sexual relationship, Wulfgar tells Aislinn, “you resist me not, but yourself, and I would wager the time will come when I will but touch you and you will beg my favors” (Woodiwiss 139). Looking at this statement on first reading, it appears to be another sexist, arrogant statement. However, there is another layer to that statement that implies that Aislinn will come to enjoy her sexuality, to choose to have sex with the man she cares about and like it, which seems to be the whole point of the sexual content in bodice rippers. Yes, this enjoyment results from a relationship based on force, but the history of women is riddled with force. In order to fully understand the significance of bodice rippers within their society, it is important to look at the end result – women embracing their right to not settle for sex they don’t enjoy – rather than the means taken to reach it.

Gradually, Aislinn comes to love Wulfgar, even though he hasn’t realized his own love for her yet. Once she sees him as another human rather than a conqueror, she allows herself to enjoy sex with him. This shift in her views on sex comes after he shows her sympathy upon the unnecessary death of her horse. By showing compassion for his feelings, he’s beginning to show the emotional element Wendell and Tan identify as necessary for a true alpha hero. Directly after they make love, Aislinn reflects, “Her failure to curb her own passion when he gave no hint of love or regard for her upset her greatly. Her body was more in his will than her own” (Woodiwiss 275). What she doesn’t realize is that by opening up to him on his field of battle, she sets herself up to win the war. Within the arc of the romance novel, sexual compatibility often comes before the declaration of love. Love is built on the intimacy created by enjoying sex and deepening the relationship – another side effect of affective individualism. Is this an ideal depiction? No. But an important part of Aislinn or any of these early heroines accepting the fact that it is ok to enjoy sex is that they gain more autonomy and agency within the story.

Another common trope of the bodice rippers is that the woman almost always ends up pregnant at some point in the novel. This could be viewed as the heteronormative need to prove fertility and the viability of the marriage and there is probably some truth to that. However, Woodiwiss seems to use it as a vehicle in which the hero comes to realize just how strong the heroine actually is. No matter how much she fights with him or does to help their community, he usually does not realize her inner strength until he’s seen her survive childbirth. We can see this in Wulfgar’s reflections after Aislinn gives birth to their son, “The cost of her struggle to bring the child forth had etched its passing on the gentle features, yet there shone behind them a clam strength that made pride rise in him. She was indeed a wife to stand beside a man and meet whatever life could offer” (Woodiwiss 438). Seeing the strength she is capable of, Wulfgar’s entire perspective begins to shift, paving the way for his romantic declaration and the companionate marriage to become fully established. In recognizing Aislinn’s strength, her “merit” as Wollstonecraft would say, as different from his own but still present, Wulfgar recognizes her as a fellow affective individual and accepts her beside him as such, an alpha recognizing another alpha. Once that acceptance comes, he can readily admit his feelings for her and the end of the novel leaves the reader at the beginning of their partnership. According to Regis, “The new couple do not change the structure of society or retire from it…but they create within it an oasis of calm morality, free from its shame and danger” (Regis 141). Yes, all around Wulfgar and Aislinn there are still unequal marriages and forced relationships, but the happy ending comes because they have formed their own partnership within society and their lives are better for it.

The writers of bodice rippers did create somewhat murky waters for their descendants to slog through with the language of rape and force used, but Woodiwiss and her contemporaries created a huge shift within the genre. Because of them, “Romance fiction not only says women want that knowledge [of sex] and have a right to it, it often gives it to them explicitly on the page, telling them it’s not wrong to want a full sexual life and showing them how to get one” (Wendell/Tan 2537). Prior to this point in literary history, books still held the strong Victorian mores about sex and gender roles. The “bodice rippers” allowed sex to enter into literary discourse in a way that spoke to women and showed them that sex should be proudly enjoyed and not hidden from. Aislinn and her counterparts are alpha heroines because they find a way to “tame” their alpha heroes and show them that compromising for love is not a weakness, but a strength. These heroines reach their full strength when they learn that enjoying sex as much as men do is not a crime. By the mid-1980s when the bodice ripper faded quietly into the archives, women readers had come to understand and accept sex as a right. In public life, they were now working beside men in the same jobs, so why shouldn’t they enjoy the same things men did?

Posted in I Choose "I Do"

I Choose “I Do” – Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Four major points within the larger history of the novel are significant to the evolution of the “romance novel.” The first is the career of Jane Austen. Born on the cusp of the movement towards affective individualism, Austen wrote during a time when women were faced with a paradox. Once a woman married, unless stated within a legal document, her husband gained complete control of her person and her proprietary assets., She maintained her independence if she remained unmarried or was widowed, but that was really only beneficial if she was wealthy. Without the money to support herself, a woman would need a job and those were few and far between.

Because of the limited social, political, and financial options available for women, the choice of a spouse was of the utmost importance. However, prior to the eighteenth century, women had little say in the matter. According to Regis,

The romance novel emerges as a dominant form of the English novel just as the expectations surrounding the choice of husband shifted. Affective individualism added to the choice a desire for liberty and the shift from older forms of union to companionate marriage added a requirement that the wife- and husband-to-be love each other (Regis 58).

Austen is one of the first authors to recognize this shift and transform it into a successful genre. Using different forms of the alpha hero and alpha heroine, Austen engages in a dialogue with the newly popular “companionate marriage” and offers an illustration of the pitfalls and successes available within this new form.

While all of Austen’s canonical novels engage with the ideas of agency and the companionate marriage, I want to primarily focus on the heroes and heroines of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion as they show the most distinctive explorations of the agency available to both men and women of the middle class during Austen’s time. Moving chronologically, the first couple that must be examined is Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is often held up as one of the premiere romance novels, and for good reason. Elizabeth Bennett is a representative of the problems facing women of the slightly impoverished gentry of the time. Practically speaking, she and all of her sisters must find suitable husbands in order to remain financially solvent because their father’s estate is entailed. However, being an educated, intelligent woman of the new nineteenth century, Elizabeth refuses to “settle” for the type of marriage that would benefit her family, but leave her miserable.

As this new “alpha heroine,” Austen works to establish Elizabeth as a different type of woman than any other female in the novel. She speaks her mind, both to other women and men, and does so in a rational, intelligent manner. Caroline Bingley makes a very pointed dig at Elizabeth, saying that she “‘is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art’”(Austen Pride 423). This comment, made during Elizabeth’s stay at Netherfield, serves as an illustration of how Elizabeth is perceived by women who are perfectly content with the social structure that was still dominant during this time period. Women who expressed opinions and chose unconventional paths provided by the new concept of affective individualism were viewed as “other” or “unattractive” or “paltry.” Rather than taking the traditional stance, Austen portrays women of the old order as petty, both through Caroline and through Lady Catherine, who almost seems to be Caroline’s much older double. Both take every opportunity to belittle Elizabeth and her unusual life choices, but each is left lacking her own personal goals while Elizabeth simultaneously achieves something above her own expectations. Above all else that challenges these two women, Elizabeth exerts agency. She chooses to refuse not one but two marriage proposals in spite of social expectations. By expressing her free will, Elizabeth places herself as a member of the new social order slowly taking form within the middle class, threatening to subsume the old Burkean ways.

Many critics argue that Darcy represents the Burkean ideals about hierarchy and class expectations. For most of the novel, they would be correct. Even his first proposal to Elizabeth is full of Burkean objections to his decision to step into the realm of affective individualism. Rather than providing detail through dialogue, Austen describes proposal from Elizabeth’s perspective;

he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority–of its being a degradation–of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit (Austen Pride 2208).

Every negative aspect of his proposal stems from Burkean conceptions of what should recommend a match leading up to this point in history. Family, social station these are what Darcy chooses to highlight in his proposal, rather than any affection he might have for Elizabeth at this point in the narrative. In a way, this novel shows Darcy’s movement from a Burkean into the new “alpha” hero who will choose his heroine because of her differences, rather than in spite of them, and because he possesses a genuine affection for her.

As a couple, Elizabeth and Darcy present challenges to each other not only socially, but personally as well. Elizabeth as a person unsettles Darcy from his well-constructed life. Elizabeth forces him to redefine himself just as much as she must redefine herself. Feminist critics of the romance novel often state that their biggest problem is that it perpetuates the idea that a woman should lose herself in her husband. The difference between a romance novel and a great romance novel such as Pride and Prejudice is in the fact that there is a mutual alteration. In this novel in particular, we see evidence of what romance novelists identify as the “taming” of the hero. In his final proposal, Darcy says “ ‘You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased’”(Austen Pride 4356). The words Austen puts in Darcy’s mouth here are not what one would expect for the stereotypical romance hero. The “alpha hero” and “alpha heroine” have spent a good deal of the novel battling for their place within society and have now found a way for both personalities to capitulate into one shared space of the companionate marriage.

With Emma, published in 1815, two years after Pride and Prejudice, Austen took a different approach to affective individualism and the agency it allows women. Unlike any other Austen heroine, Emma is from a wealthy family with seemingly no worries in regards to entailment or financial problems. Indeed, the situation for the main couple in Emma is almost so idyllic that marriage seems wholly unnecessary. So why write the book? Emma is a novel based entirely on choices and the control or manipulation of these choices. Emma Woodhouse tries very hard to influence the agency available to others to suit her own whims, primarily because she has no need to exert her own matrimonial agency.

When questioned about whether or not she fears being an “old maid”, Emma brushes the idea aside.

“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else” (Austen Emma 1103).

Here Austen addresses one of the main arguments supporting affective individualism. A woman of good fortune did not need to marry, unless it were for dynastic purposes. With the rise of affective individualism, the notion of dynastic marriage became less important. Men might want to marry Emma for her beauty or her money, but she didn’t have to marry. Given her father’s apathy towards her behavior in general, Emma could choose to do whatever she wanted. However, it is important to remember when looking at this speech is that Austen herself was a “poor old maid.” Unlike Miss Bates, she found a way to support herself and exert her own agency over the course of her life and that of her mother and sister.

With this in mind, we then must look at why this is a novel about companionate marriage. Knightley is firmly rooted, like Darcy, as an independent male. There is continual reference to him and his relationship with his property, Donwell Abbey, positioning Knightley as a Burkean character. Handler and Segal explain that during this time “The ideal of independence is epitomized by the gentleman of landed prominence. Lands materiality and naturalness are taken as signs of its permanence and by extension, of the permanence of the patriline associated with the land” (Handler/Segal 695). With Emma, Austen creates a very similar situation between her and Hartfield by essentially putting Emma in charge of the estate. She provides Emma with this economic independence that is usually associated with the male, but explains it in female situations as seen in the conversation with Harriet, thus creating an alternative to the purely Burkean for both Emma and Knightley. By making both of these characters financially and socially independent, Austen sets up a scenario that illustrates an ideal sort of companionate marriage, born out of the availability of female agency that was not readily accessible by most women of this time period, as her other heroines show. Emma doesn’t have any reason to marry Knightley except that she loves him and chooses to spend her life with him.

The agency for females expressed in Persuasion is very similar to that of Pride and Prejudice. Anne Elliot exerts her own free will in her refusal of marriage proposals, whether from being persuaded out of them, such as Captain Wentworth’s first proposal, or because she does not believe they are the best match for her, as is the case with Charles Musgrove and William Elliot. Her decision to marry Wentworth at the end of the novel is the ultimate act of agency for her, choosing to make a companionate match with the man she loves. As Regis explains, “The ending isolates them in their mutual choice, while it inserts the new union based on that choice back into society which includes the characters who embodied the barrier” (Regis 82). Both Anne and Wentworth are still the same people, from the same situations, after their engagement. The difference is that they are now united to face their challenges rather than struggling through them separately.

The uniqueness in Persuasion stems from the representation of male affective individualism. Class structures were extremely rigid during this time, especially regarding prejudices about people who earned money rather than inheriting it. Wentworth is an example of the type of merit-based hierarchy Wollstonecraft argued for. He “distinguished himself, and early gained the other step in rank, and must now, by successive captures, have made a handsome fortune” (Austen Persuasion 360). Part of the new middle class, forming because of ideology such as affective individualism, was based off of men — whether sailors, soldiers, or merchants — earning fortunes equal or greater to that of the gentry and the aristocracy. Over the first half of the century, money or blood slowly became a deciding factor to an advantageous match rather than money and blood. Hints of this can be seen in Pride and Prejudice, but Austen truly comes to terms with the reality of this shift in marital ideology by the time she writes Persuasion.

At the time of Austen’s writing, men who earned money were still seen as members of a lower order. When discussing a possible tenant for Kellynch with his solicitor, Sir Walter “observed sarcastically—‘There are few among the gentlemen of the navy, I imagine, who would not be surprised to find themselves in a house of this description’” (Austen Persuasion 212). Even though his refusal to give up any of the trappings of his class for the sake of financial solvency, Sir Walter looks down upon a man who has worked his way up through the ranks to earn a place of honor. Sir Walter and the rest of Anne’s family position themselves very much in a similar sphere as Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine in their adherence to the old ways of thinking. Lady Russell’s acceptance of him at the end of the novel because of his companionate marriage with Anne acts as a representation of the grudging acceptance growing within the culture of the time for men who worked for a living rather than acting as idle dandies. In Sense and Sensibility, we see the damage done by men without employment. Willoughby seduces Marianne out of both attraction and idleness. Edward Ferrars, because he lacks employment, forms a superficial attachment to Lucy Steele that threatens to trap him in a marriage based off of duty rather than love. The relationship between Captain Wentworth and Anne shows that with work and time, love provides a superior alternative to a marriage of duty.

Wentworth is a hero who, rather than forcing the heroine to change, changes to fit with her to form a marriage that brings out the best in both of them. According to Walzer, “If Anne is mistakenly perceived as the epitome of womanly weakness—someone who doesn’t matter—Wentworth is presented as the avatar of masculine will, a naval officer who shapes life by the force of his decision and action” (Walzer 701). Wentworth is this new form of “alpha hero” that is developing within the culture and literature. Austen utilizes soldiers and naval men in nearly every one of her novels, but Captain Wentworth stands out as the first to be the primary hero and he does so in a powerful way. He knows what he wants and does his best to make it apparent to those around him. But, as a naval man, he has no concept of how to operate within the world that is “polite society.”  He approaches his search for a bride with the traditional mentality of the time. Walzer argues that,

Wentworth’s willful adherence to a masculine code of honor has, in a sense, emasculated him. Furthermore, in the courtship that follows, Anne leads and he can only react. In the domesticity of the parlor, which is his new place, Wentworth learns the value of watching others, listening to others, overhearing others, rather than preaching to others (Walzer 704).

While I don’t necessarily believe that his valuation of a “masculine code of honor” emasculates him, I do think Wentworth must shift his way of thinking from that of an all male culture into the realm of a shared space with females. I also agree that Wentworth adopts the practices of observing his surroundings “rather than preaching to others,” and I think that he does so primarily in order to form a successful companionate match with Anne. Their time at Lyme shows him what is required to win her and how he must adapt in order to achieve his goal. He compromises his way of thinking to fit Anne rather than requiring her to alter herself for him. In this way, Anne shows herself to be a subtle “alpha heroine;” she remains as she is, even if he thinks he wants something different, holding steadfast to her faith in him and the love that they shared.

Many feminists, readers and critics, still find Austen’s novels problematic due to the fact that they always end with marriage. Something they forget to take into account is the fact that marriage is often the best option for women in the nineteenth century, especially women in the position of Anne and Elizabeth. There’s nothing Austen can do to change that; she wrote contemporary novels that dealt with the realities of the society in which she was writing. What Austen did was provide alternatives to the unhappy, forced matches and show women that it wasn’t necessary to settle for a husband. She gave her heroines the gift of freedom by sending them on a journey to overcome the social obstacles to their ability to exert their own agency. Regis remarks, “Nonetheless, the heroine’s freedom, however provisional, is a victory. She is freed from the immediate encumbrances that prevent her union with the hero. When the heroine achieves freedom, she chooses the hero” (Regis 16). She isn’t “giving up” her freedom. Anne, Elizabeth, and Emma all choose to join with the men that best complement them and vice versa. The formation of these companionate matches allows all involved to reach a higher level of happiness and fulfillment.

Posted in I Choose "I Do"

I Choose “I Do”: Affective Individualism and Agency in romance from Jane Austen to Nora Roberts

So a discussion on Twitter today, started by the lovely and disgustingly talented Sarah Maclean about the perceptions and myths surrounding romance novels prompted me to mention that my senior thesis was all about how romance novels have helped women. As requested I’m posting that paper here (in 4 parts because it’s 9,000 words  – Bibliography at the end).

A bit of background first. My senior Capstone class was entitled “Kinky Jane – The Oppositional Austen in Criticism and Culture.” In the class, we discussed many of the ways that Jane Austen was either subversive and critical during her own time (her own brothers were the ones who created the goody-two-shoes image of her in the forward of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey), as well as how literary critics and popular culture continue to use her works for social commentary. For an aspiring romance novelist (working on book 5, none published -yet), I had to look at how my idol started the genre that I love so much and how she used the idea of a woman choosing her marriage and created a gateway for the course of the marriage plot and romance novels to take.

Disclaimer: Please keep in mind this is horribly academic as I wrote it for a grade. Because I was limited to 30 double spaced pages, this only scratches the surface of the discussions that can be had on this subject. If you want much better (and wiser) discussions, check out the bibliography at the end of part 4.


In 2009, Americans spent $1.34 billion dollars on romance novels (RWA). Romance novels have evolved and adapted over the past 200 years as women have embraced the power to exert their own agency provided by a concept of affective individualism that grew out of the late eighteenth century. The beginning of this trend can be seen through Jane Austen and the characters in her novels. I plan to trace the evolution of the relationship between romance novels and agency from Austen, through Georgette Heyer, the “grandmother” of Regency romance, into the period of “bodice rippers” started by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I will end up in the current romance market, looking at Nora Roberts and Susan Elizabeth Phillips, the masters of the genre. These particular women serve as representatives of movements within both the romance genre and literature as a whole to transform female stories into vehicles of empowerment for readers and authors. Along with this discussion, I plan to examine the ways that the character archetypes Austen chose to exemplify in her heroes and heroines remain in evidence throughout this evolution that make it a cogent narrative of the genre.

Before getting into the discussion about the evolutionary tract of what is now known as “Genre Romance,” it is necessary to examine what made it possible. One of the main ideas to come out of Enlightenment and the eighteenth century was the concept of the value of the individual, independent from nuclear kinship structures. Social historian Lawrence Stone provides two definitions of individualism in the eighteenth century. First, he describes it as “a growing introspection and interest in the individual personality” (Stone 151). The second definition is “a demand for personal autonomy and a corresponding respect for the individual’s right to privacy, to self-expression, and to the free exercise of his will within limits set by the need for social cohesion” (Stone 151). The latter definition is most applicable within the context of the term “affective individualism.” Within the discourse of sociology, “affective individualism” is used to refer to the shift in courtship practices that accompanied the industrial revolution, favoring love matches over dynastic ones (Stone 151). “Affective individualism” is one of the first pieces of evidence that indicate women were beginning to gain some agency over their lives. Prior to the eighteenth century, if a woman were to marry, it would likely be to a man of her parents’ choosing. When the decision of choosing a mate began to shift into the hands of a female, it started the process for women to eventually gain autonomy both in and out of marriage.

This agency to choose one’s spouse resulted in the “companionate marriage,” which Pamela Regis defines as “one in which the chief end of a union is mutual comfort and support, including love, between spouses” (Regis 57). The companionate marriage was still a relatively new concept at the beginning to the nineteenth century when the romance novel came into being, but the genre quickly became the strongest proponent for this new adaptation. The growing Industrial Revolution was shifting not only economic definitions within society, but also social structures, leaving room for the fluidity of choice provided by companionate marriage to take hold. The idea of “affective individualism” opened the door for the romance novel, but companionate marriage laid the necessary foundation for it to take flight.

The concept of “affective individualism” in Austen’s time rose to prominence amidst warring discourses surrounding how hierarchies should be defined within the new societal structures that were emerging from the Industrial Revolution. According to Handler and Segal, “Wollstonecraft and Burke commonly believe that their view alone captures the ‘natural’ basis for hierarchy: for Burke, nature sides with ancestral inheritance, for Wollstonecraft, with individual merit” (Handler/Segal 703). The Burkean ideals represented the social norm going into the time in which Jane Austen was writing. Wollstonecraft represented the counter-culture that was beginning to favor the ability to earn prominence rather than being born into it, as illustrated by the glorification of the Duke of Wellington, formerly General Sir Arthur Wellesley. Within the nuances debate rests the advent of what we now see as the “romance novel.”

The Romance Writers of America (RWA) trade organization specifies that a “romance novel” must contain two elements. The first is a “central love story,” meaning that “the main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel” (RWA). Because this could be used to define many different novels, the RWA adds the contingent that the story must have “an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending” meaning “the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love” (RWA). Within these definitions, the RWA separates “romance novels” from “love stories.” Books like Gone With The Wind and Wuthering Heights meet the first criteria, but are lacking in the second; therefore they are “love stories” rather than “romance novels.” The novels written by nineteenth century authors such as Jane Austen meet both criteria and paved the way for the “romance novel” as we know it today.

Before delving into the discussion of the evolution of romance novels, it is important to understand the rhetoric surrounding the two major components of the novel: the hero and the heroine. For the purposes of this paper, I will be using the definitions of these characters set forth by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan. Wendell and Tan state that most romance novel heroes are “alpha” heroes. They explain that, “when we discuss ‘alpha hero,’ we’re talking about strong, dominating, confident men, often isolated, who hold a tortured, tender element within themselves that they rarely let anyone see” (Wendell/Tan 1281). Heroes who fit this description pepper the pages of novels from Austen to Roberts and their evolution and interactions with their heroines are key elements to the changes in romance novels.

To complement the alpha heroes, there must be an “alpha” heroine. “Beta” heroines are the “alphas’ ” more dependent counterparts from non-romance novels. According to Wendell and Tan, “the alpha heroine goes head-to-head with the hero, and in battle of one form or another, be it verbal, literal, or sexual, they come to a compromise that ultimately elevates them both. With the alpha heroine, love doesn’t just conquer all. Love kicks ass” (Wendell/Tan 1009). Granted, the alpha heroine has become decidedly more “alpha” in the past several decades, but she is still present in her most basic incarnation as early as Elizabeth Bennett.

The relationships between heroes and heroines are just as complicated as real life relationships. The dynamic growth of the central relationship of the novel allows both parties to reach their fullest potential. The romantic relationship of the romance novel differs from every other genre in that it is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Romance novelist Robyn Donald explains the appeal of the genre to women in particular, stating that, “This powerful man, confident in his standing and his masculinity, sure of himself, competent and trustworthy, discovers during the course of the romance that without the heroine he is no longer able to enjoy his life. He needs her” (Donald 83). From the very beginning, in Pride and Prejudice, the mutual compromise of the romantic relationship sets it apart. Elizabeth doesn’t just need Darcy and his money; he needs her to make him a better man. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship, dependent on the strength of both sides in order to be successful. They can survive separately, but are made better and more effective together. This key concept and the evolution of its depiction is what I want to focus on throughout the four major events in the literary history of the romance novel.