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.

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Looks like I’m “It”

The diabolical Tiffany Reisz ( tagged me in a game of LUCKY SEVEN. A writer tagged in this game goes to page 77 of their WIP (work-in-progress), finds line number seven, and copies the next seven lines.  My current WIP was just started yesterday, so (since I’m not superwoman) I’m posting an excerpt from the as-yet-to-be-named sequel to the book I’m working on.

Cady accepted the thanks of the women, directing a few of them to books that their kids might like to read at home. When she finally extracted herself from the story time crowd, Micah sat in the armchair closest to the front counter, the box casually resting on one leg.  “You certainly look better than the last time I saw you.”

 “I hope so. I certainly feel better.” Micah stood, a sheepish grin lighting his face. He held the box out to her. “These are for you. A thank you present for staying up with me all night.”

 I’m retagging the brilliant Allie Sanders because she’s the only person I can think of who’s working on something right now 😛
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Future Husband of the Week: Special Agent Seeley Booth

A lot of the romance authors I know who blog have a “boyfriend of the week” feature. They post many drool-worthy pictures of gorgeous men and I love it. But I want to put a little twist on it. Most of these authors are happily married. Since I am not, I’m going to post a “future husband of the week.” The requirements for a future husband are different than those for a boyfriend. As all romance readers know, the hero can’t just be attractive. He has to have other qualities, such as charm, intelligence, a good sense of humor, compassion. The list goes on and on. So each week I will post a guy (real or fictional) who qualifies as a “future husband” aka a romance novel hero.

For my second Future Husband, I’m going to the realm of fiction. One of my favorite TV shows is BONES. Special Agent Seeley Booth is everything that a romance hero should be. Handsome, strong, brave and loyal. But there are also a lot of fun, quirky elements that make Booth (never Seeley) stand out from the crowd. 

Over the years, Hart Hanson and his wonderful team of writers have added some great layers to Booth. He served as an Army Ranger and he is very true to his conviction in the good in the American government. He’s a devout Catholic, even in the face of everything he sees in his rather gruesome job. Booth has helped Brennan become more connected with the realities of life rather than the facts. I love his patience and understanding.

Booth also has a fun, childish side to him that keeps things interesting and forces Bones to lighten up a bit. A sense of humor is a must for a Future Husband.

My favorite aspect of Booth’s character is his deep love for his son, Parker. I’m a sucker for a guy who is good with kids and genuinely likes them.

Parker (and Brennan) bring out the “Alpha male” protective side of Booth which is also pretty darn sexy. He’ll do anything to keep those he loves safe. I can’t wait for the new season to start so we can see more of Booth’s protective side with the new baby 😉

What do you think? Would Booth make your list?

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Doing Justice – to Books and Movies.

With so many book-to-movie adaptations these days, we always hear the question: was the movie as good as the book? With very few exceptions, the answer is usually “no.” To my way of thinking, the job of a movie based on a book is to make viewers want to read the book. It’s to draw non-readers over to the side of being readers. I think we (readers) need to adjust our way of thinking. The real question should be: does the movie do the book justice?

In order for a book to be made into a movie, it generally has to have a built in audience. This audience knows the story, they love the characters, but they want to see the familiar elements come to life. The burden of the filmmakers is to do justice to the story elements while still making a coherent movie. Unfortunately, many interpretations fall short of meeting this burden. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a HUGE fan of the Narnia books. I’ve read all of them at least twice and many of them more than that. The first of the most recent adaptations, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe met its burden. It remained loyal to the story and the spirit of the book. A few changes were made for the sake of cinematic value, but for the most part it satisfied the most ardent fans.

Prince Caspian, the next film in the series, strayed further from the story. I thought it did justice to the book, for the most part, although some of my hardcore friends at NarniaWeb might disagree with me. Much of this disagreement hinges on one or two additions, such as a certain kiss, that many deem unnecessary.

Then came Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Oh, VDT, we had such hope for you. Sadly, in the hands of a different distribution company with different expectations, the filmmakers decided to worry more about cinematic appeal than doing justice to the book. The result? Even if you forget the fact that it is based on a book, it is still a mediocre movie. If filmmakers are going to take such a route, they need to make sure the movie is at least enjoyable. The movie version of Ella Enchanted bore very little similarity to the book, but most people were ok with that because it was still a fun movie.

There are very few adaptation movies that I go into with high hopes these days. The Help was one. And it didn’t disappoint. Did it follow the book scene for scene? Of course not. The audiobook was 18 hours. They managed to condense the story down to 2.5 hours. But it did the book justice. The casting was perfect. You believed Emma Stone was Skeeter Phelan. Octavia Spencer embodied Minnie. Bryce Dallas Howard seemed born to play Hilly Holbrook. While there were parts I wished could have been included, no extravagant changes were made to the story. Every character did what they were supposed to and reacted in the same way they did in the book.

More filmmakers need to take note of how the adaptation of The Help was done. Tate Taylor recognized what needed to be in the film to do justice to the book and what had to be left out to do justice to the movie. It’s a balancing act. They managed it (for the most part) with the Harry Potter films. And totally failed with the Twilight movies (Kristen Stewart *shudder*). I’m in the middle of reading the Hunger Games trilogy, praying that they realize this formula as they make the films. Like the Twilight books, they have cinematic books to work with. It’s simply a question of remembering the balance of justice.

What books do you think the movies have done justice to? Which ones have been criminally unjust?

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Future Husband of the Week

A lot of the romance authors I know who blog have a “boyfriend of the week” feature. They post many drool-worthy pictures of gorgeous men and I love it. But I want to put a little twist on it. Most of these authors are happily married. Since I am not, I’m going to post a “future husband of the week.” The requirements for a future husband are different than those for a boyfriend. As all romance readers know, the hero can’t just be attractive. He has to have other qualities, such as charm, intelligence, a good sense of humor, compassion. The list goes on and on. So each week I will post a guy (real or fictional) who qualifies as a “future husband” aka a romance novel hero.

To start this off, I’m going to go with a man who has had a little bit of my heart since my best friend gave me his CD when I was 16-


Vital Statistics –

Full name: Joshua Winslow Groban

Age: 30

Occupation: Singer/Songwriter/Genius

For those of you who don’t know, Josh Groban is a wonderful singer with a voice that absolutely makes me melt. Seriously, if I’m stressed or on a rampage, one of his songs has to come on for like 5 seconds and I instantly mellow. But he’s more than just a pretty face (and even prettier voice). Josh also write beautiful music with hauntingly romantic lyrics. Seriously, go look up the words for “So She Dances.” Absolutely gorgeous.

If you haven’t bought his latest album “Illuminations,” you have to. And if you are one of the lucky ducks who could afford to go to his concert, I am forever jealous of you 😛

Besides being a genius with music, Josh is also really funny. I love his sense of humor. His video blogs are always very charming and self-deprecating. My favorite thing Josh has done has to be his TV theme medley . HILARIOUS

He’s also a huge promoter of the arts in schools. If you read some of my previous posts, I think kids need all the encouragement they can get to foster creativity and imagination. In a world of A, B, C, or D, music and art and writing allow kids to think beyond the little scantron bubble and learn to solve real world problems. Josh’s foundation works with the kids that wouldn’t normally be encouraged to pursue the arts and helps them get that extra edge that creativity brings. (Read more about Find Your Light foundation here

And the cherry on top: he loves his dog. If you follow Josh on Twitter or Facebook, you know that he tries to take his dog Sweeney with him wherever he goes (can we get a collective “Awww”).

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Writing Quirks

As I madly try to get revisions accomplished, I’m more aware that usual of how persnickety I am about how my body is when I write. What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that I can’t have anything on my fingers or wrists. For this reason, I never wear a watch and only wear one ring (a celtic knot that I got in Edinburgh after a mad dash through the city), which usually ends up on the only necklace I wear (a James Avery cross identical to one owned by my mom and the other members of the Mommy Mafia on a chain given to me by one of the mommies for my confirmation). If I don’t have these things on, it feels weird and if I have more than these two pieces on I get super distracted.

My hair is the thing I’m most particular about when writing. Confession: I’m a fiddler and a hair twister. It’s genetic. Whenever I read or write or concentrate on anything, I inevitably end up twisting a piece of hair around one finger. My aunt does it, my cousin does it, my second cousins do it. Another trait we all share: I have to be able to curl a leg under me when I sit down to work. Doesn’t matter where I am. If I can’t bend my legs under me, it feels awkward and I can’t give 100% of my attention to what I’m doing.

Noise is my last requirement. Depending on where I am in a novel, I need either TV (when things are going well) or music (when the novel and I are fighting) to work. I blame my public school education and the need to adapt to working in noisy, busy environments. I just work better with multiple things going on. Drives my mother crazy, but what can you do?

What are your writing/working quirks? Are you as neurotic as I am or can you write through just about anything?