Lucinda Elliot

Feminism and Romantic Novels: Lucinda Elliot’s Review of Maya Rodale’s ‘Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained’.

Some years ago, when I started writing spoof historical gothics, I had an open mind about the role that romantic novels play with regard to feminism.
When young I had subscribed to the view that they generally endorse the values of patriarchy and sugar coat a confirmation of women’s role, so now I was interested in the dialectical notion that romance novels could change enough to subvert that reactionary function.  That was what the ‘romance community’ was now arguing, and if they sometimes seemed to be protesting too much, that was understandable, when their genre had been dismissed out of hand for decades.
I was open to being convinced.
Now, after reading several books putting forward those arguments, ie, Pamela Regis’ ‘The Natural History of the Romance Novel’ , Sarah Wendell’s ‘Beyond Heaving Bosoms’ and Maya Rodale’s ‘Dangerous Books for Girls’ among others…
…I have yet to be convinced, unfortunately.
If anything, I find many of the arguments in favour of ‘Reading Romantic Novels as a Form of Feminist Empowerment’ to be ring hollow.  In fact, often it seems to me that authors of romantic novels have a near impossible task in trying to co-opt feminism into a genre which is arguably compelled by its fantastical nature and rigid boundaries, finally to leave power relations between men and women unchallanged. Also, it seems to me that the form of feminism which endorses above all ‘choice’ and which is tolerant about rape fantasies and such terms as ‘feminine women’ is  too blandly tolerant and amorphous to be in any way challanging to the patriarchal status quo.
Unfortunaely, it fits into it comfortably. The fact that romance is ‘written by women, for women’ is no sort of threat to the establishment if the novels feature a woman whose happiness and identity depend upon, in fact, a man choosing her  (the fact that ‘she chooses him too’ is besides the point in unequal power relations: if she had equal power, her choices might be very different).
In fact, it is arguable that it is only when romance challanges and overcomes its own rigid boundaries, that insistence on the obligatory Happy Ever After and Avoiding Nasty Sordid Realism, that it will be able properly to take on a truly feminist stance.
I am frankly disappointed to have come to this way of thinking, but there we are.  That wasn’t the conclusion at which I wanted to arrive, but intellectual honesty compels me and all that sort of thing…
I do have to say, that I suspect that a certain amount of wishful thinking is going on amongst the ‘Romance Community ‘ who sympathize with feminism. I suspect they want to believe that romance can have a progressive role regarding woman’s position because they want to go on reading (and in some cases, writing) romances in their current form – or anyway in only a slightly modified verson of it – and therefore, they want their favourite genre to acquire literary and feminist respectability, without exploring too deeply how those tastes have been shaped by and possibly uphold, patriarchal sex roles.
The review of Maya Rodale’s ‘Dangerous Books for Girls’ which I put up on Goodreads a few months ago covers most of these points, so here it is.

‘This was an interesting book, and while it was openly partisan, it did – unlike Pamela Regis’ defence of romance as literature – utilize humour (you’ll see from my spelling of that from which part of the world I come). It was also well argued. It did make some points that hadn’t occurred to me.

Unlike so many of the blogs written in defence of romance, it did not adopt the defensive: ‘If you don’t adore romance you’ve probably only read one or two in your life and you define the whole genre by one category’ approach.

I did enjoy those dry statistically based quips about, for instance, the huge preponderance of Dukes in Regency Romances and of billionaires in modern day, US based romances. Thank you, Ms Rodale; I do love a laugh above everything.

I also enjoyed the new androgynous depiction of the Alpha, though I think to make that message clear, that Alpha should be more part of the heroine’s role.

It was also refreshing to see someone (apart from Sarah Wendell, that is) comment on the dreadful covers of so many romances, with those males with those bizarre, even unnatural six packs.

I have often thought myself, that some of them look as if they are decomposing or have a full bosom.

I was also interested that the author admits that romances – as cheap, mass produced literature, are largely uniform in basic theme. I don’t think Regis dared to put her head above the parapet so far.


Ms Rodale makes the very interesting point that romance writers, because they have not traditionally been taken seriously, have not in the past been expected to write to high literary standards. This is an interesting and highly relevant pointer to romance writing today. I note that some romance writers seem almost to take on the New Age argument that any criticism is negative criticism, and therefore, by definition, BAD…

‘By not having experts determine what is well executed and what is rubbish – after actually reading it –these woman had presumably no idea how to improve their writing’.

This undiscerning attitude continues to the present day, unfortunately. Romance writers and readers, traditionally derided, have adopted an attitude where they are totally uncritical of each other and of romance in general. Almost nobody will break ranks and admit that a great deal of poor quality stuff is churned out, preferring to comment on the exceptional almost as if it is typical. This is unfortunate, to say the least, for those writers who wish to improve standards and perhaps to challenge the rigid boundaries which have typified it.

The author’s comments about fantasy and the use of the ‘too real but not human robot’ theory was highly astute. I was impressed with that. I would say that is one of my own criticisms of the genre.

Parts of romances are entirely realistic and believable – but they combine with others parts that are pure escapism; for instance, along comes the lover who always satisfies sexually, who always looks wonderful, who is equine in never vomiting – at least in the heroine’s presence. In reality , we all make fools of ourselves – more often than we care to admit. Yet, these men never do. What, an alpha have his trousers – or breeches – fall down (unless he’s deliberately pulling them down)?

Meanwhile,the heroine never has hairy legs or underarms, and generally has no natural functions or menstrual cycle.

And then, the heroine so rarely puts that hero down verbally. Few man are as verbally adroit as a quick witted woman in a verbal sparring match in real life, but from the average romance, one would think it was the other way about.

Here is something that is beyond the pale (terrible joke, I know) for an historical romance novel to mention.

All these are part of the fantasy aspect, of course. Sadly, I tend to be displeased by, instead of charmed by, this drift of the romance from realism to escapism, often moving from quite witty, strong writing to a sentimental, rose tinted approach.

When Ms Rodale comments that the HEA makes the reader feel ‘safe in caring about the characters’ and also speaks of the ‘happy glow’ you get at the end of reading a romantic novel, it doesn’t often seem to work for me. Too often, while having some sympathy for the heroine, I find the hero too arrogant and unsympathetic to wish for a happy ending for him at all.

While the feminist argument in support of romance is that the heroine is depicted as demonstrating power through her making a series of choices (which always result in her choosing the hero), I can’t help feeling quite often that the heroine’s choice of the hero (or anti hero) is a choice she shouldn’t be making.

This is one of the problems with the fantasy aspect of That Happy Ever Afterwards with which I believe it is difficult for a modern feminist reader or writer of romances to ignore. How do you reconcile feminism with what would in reality prove to be a bad choice of a man essentially repressive towards woman (even if he does make an idol out of the heroine). This ending is too selfishly competitive in an infantile way: ‘Ooh! He’s chosen me! I’m the favourite!’

That was my feeling particularly with the novel which is hailed by Pamela Regis as the original romance novel – the original Alpha Abuser, Mr B, he of at least one attempted rape and false imprisonment. Oh dear, yes, I’ve ploughed through that; and the incredibly boring sequel, ‘Pamela In Her Exalted Condition’ and all of the unabridged version of ‘Clarissa’. I’m a glutton for punishment, as I detest Richardson’s style.

On the romances I’ve read, I’ve also read all of Jane Austen ‘Jane Eyre’ and other classic novels claimed to be romantic, a weary number of books by Georgette Heyer, some by Barbara Cartland, some by Mary Stewart, Norah Lofts and Vicoria Holt, some by Jilly Cooper, various modern romances, numerous historicals, and a great deal of nineteenth century dross like Charles Garvice, Mrs Humphrey Ward and Helen Mathers, and others.

I must be a tough nut to crack, as while most romance readers give the impression that they were won over to uncritical acceptance of the genre after reading one or two, I retain strong criticisms.


On Pamela and her supposed empowerment, even her worshipful creator Richardson noted in a letter of 1749 (as quoted by Terry Eagleton in ‘The Rape of Clarissa’ )‘It is apparent by the whole tenor of Mr B’s behaviour that nothing but such an implicit obedience, and slavish submission, as Pamela showed to all his injunctions and dictates, could have made her even tolerably happy with a reformed rake.’

Here, it seems that Richardson had changed his mind about the sort of reward that Pamela’s ‘virtue’ (for me, substitute self serving hypocrisy for virtue) could receive from such a man.

Accordingly, it seems to me that if the patriarch Richardson, who was no supporter of feminism, saw this clearly of Pamela, then a modern day feminist author is on tricky ground indeed in arguing that the rake’s surrender to true love and monogamy in the arms of the heroine, is convincing if s/he implies that facile, sudden reform is at all easy for one of Mr B’s descendants…

With a rake, a conditional happy ending is believable. But an unqualified Hearts and Rainbows one? This is where the robot’s inhumanity grates for me.

That brings me on to an aspect of HEA in many romances dealing with the ‘Wicked rake finds true love and reforms’ theme which I find downright unpleasant. So often, the wicked rake having been tamed by the heroine, all is therefore supposed to be well. How can this ending, where a man who has exploited so many women finds happiness with one of that despised breed – be experienced as a satisfactory solution even with suspension of belief about the durability of his conversion to monogamy?

In most of the romances which I have read, the rake expresses no remorse about his past treatment of women; his change is only effective with regard to the heroine; neither does the heroine expect him to. I find this lack of feeling for her predecessors dismal.

In this context, the quote by Maddie Caldwell that ‘The woman is happy and gets what she wants and hey, that is feminism’  which I find questionable at any time, seems particularly doubtful. The alpha may be disabled as a seducing and exploiting machine for the future, and perhaps that may arguably be an act of solidarity with this heroine’s fellow women.

And with regard to this quote, does that mean that if the heroine wanted to live humbly as the hero’s slave, getting a few beatings now and then, that would be feminism? Or would it be rather an indication that the heroine had been conditioned to think in a self destructive manner, and to enjoy abuse – even perhaps, defining it as a matter of empowerment and choice?

Yet does the exploitative hero even deserve to find a delirious happy ever after love himself, with such a history and such a lack of remorse over his dismal past? Is his love of the woman of his choice meant to be so great that he from now own respects all women as a matter of course? Perhaps this is meant to be part of this famous (or infamous) HEA, and I hadn’t realised. If so, it receives too little emphasis.

Of course, not all romances are about men with Don Juan complexes; but this stress on individual happiness does highlight in turn another aspect of the structure, ideological base and themes in romantic novels which has never been fully investigated (it has been briefly touched on by Regis, but not really explored).

This is that romantic novels, with their emphasis on the individual heroine and the working out of her individual fate, are historically inextricably linked with the development of capitalism and its ideology of individualism. Perhaps in this, they are a form of literature suited to a particular epoch, much in the same way that the Grail romances were appropriate to the ideology of feudalism.

After all, we won’t be able to make out the ideology of our own era very clearly. We perceive reality through its distorting lens. It will seem ‘natural’ to us, unless we have trained our minds to be highly critical of our own era.

All forms of social system are finite, and along with them fashion for the particular form of literature to which that structure gave rise.

I was disappointed that the author did not go more thoroughly into the issue of rape in romance, and the ugly history of successful romances in previous eras which feature a rapist – or would be rapist – hero, and the whole matter of how the term ‘Bodice Rippers’ has often been justified.

I was glad that Maya Rodale acknowledges that: ‘There are romance heroes too arrogant, too controlling, too in need of a restraining order’.

I do not find the excuse by Jane Little, quoted in this bit, that these stories ‘obviously appeal to some emotional interest of the reader’ an adequate excuse. They may indeed do that; but should mainstream literature appeal to submerged aspects of our basest nature?

Neither would I agree with Jane Little’s definition of feminism, as ‘the right to chose and be in control of your own body and desires without judgement’.

Few would say it was all right for romances with a paedophile theme to be published, so I cannot agree with Jane Little’s definition. She does seem to be bending over backwards to try and find regressive aspects of the romance novel ‘empowering’.

I was a little disappointed that Maya Rodale quoted the fashionable ‘There’ s nothing wrong with rape fantasies’ line in this chapter on the issue of rape in romance.

I know many feminists do currently take that line. I personally agree with the view I saw expressed on a discussion thread on the topic recently, that it is a kink that should be acknowledged as an unfortunate result of patriarchal values rather than being seen as in any way positive.

On this, I was dismayed to see that the ‘classic’ romantic novel, ‘The Sheik’ with its infamous rapist hero, received five star uncritical reviews on Amazon, though I was delighted to see that many readers expressed their disgust with that book on Goodreads.

I note that with a few honourable exceptions, there is a deafening silence upon the topic of Georgette Heyer’s foul would be rapist hero in ‘Devil’s Cub’. This does seem to me to connect with another unfortuante fantasy – the one about the Failed Rapist who is Frustrated (in all senses of the word) by the Heroine, who then Curbs his Badness.

This Nasty Would Be Rapist Gets Reformed trope seems to me nearly as regressive a fantasy about a sexual abuser as the Rape as Romance one. In either case, the heroine is marrying an abuser, and while romance readers may protest that they can tell the difference between real life and fantasy – that may be true of many, but is it true of all? What about young girls? Isn’t there a danger that they will confuse abusive partners and romantic situations?  And doesn’t the popularity of such plots serve to justify the rapist’s excuse ‘They want it really? Perhaps these books about would be rapist and abusers are truly dangerous, and not in the way that is meant by traditional patriarchs.

These are some of the areas of disagreement I had with the book. Anohther is that the author, out of scruples and fellow feeling perhaps towards her fellow romance writers, never explicitly acknowledges how many purely terrible romances are being churned out, both by traditional publishers and Indie authors.

I believe that Ms Rodale writes Regency Romances. I must admit I haven’t read any of her works, but very likely, they reflect her interest in research.

My particular area of interest with regard to this area – and no doubt this is partly because I am from the UK – are those dreadful historical romances, particularly Regencies, which show little or no historical research. I am sorry to say that a number of US writers are particular offenders, though a smaller proportion of UK writers are not exempt. I have come across traditionally published Regency Romances set in an England with a parliament with seemingly only one chamber, where lager is available, people walk on ‘sidewalks’ and beds are made up with duvets, and where people express scorn with ‘Oh, please!’

No doubt it is all part of the escapist aspect of romances that the ugly aspects of life in the late eighteen and early nineteenth century – that era so beloved by readers of historical romance – unwashed bodies, infant mortality, faeces and dead cats in the streets, public torture in the pillories, the corpses of robbers prominently displyaed on gibbets, religious bigotry, death in childbirth and all the rest, are ignored.

There would have been more than enough of these gibbets with their grisly burden (this is a modern reproduction of the original) along the highways in the Georgian and Regency eras, and yet they have been carefully erased from view in most historical romances.

I don’t see why they have to be, any more than I can see why a conditional happy ending is out of the question.

I am always dismayed that the overwhelming majority Regency Romances follow the lead of Georgette Heyer in generally – there are honourable exceptions here, too – writing about the upper class and upper middle class. In fact, many historically naive readers seem to speak as though they assume that had they lived then, they would in fact have belonged to this privilged tiny minority.  It would be refreshing (to say the least) to see a move towards a trend featuring the ordinary working people who would almost certainly have been their ancestors.

Thorough researcher though she was, Georgette Heyer was savagely reactionary in her political and social convictions (witness her appalling comments on the Six Day War). This inevitably influenced just what she researched and her consequent depiction of the Regency era. This was after all, shortly before the time of the Peterloo Massacre of the Manchester cotton workers, though one would never think so, from Heyer’s consensus oriented depiction of society. I think it is a shame that Regency Romance has, almost unconsciously, it seems, continued to depict her alternative reality Regency UK, where an era of violent social upheaval is depicted as a consensus bound sort of High Tory paradise.

I have to say that I can’t agree, either, with Maya Rodale, that romance readers are open to innovation. Often, attempts at innovation in romance are greeted with incomprehension or downright hostility.

As the author has, I believe, an MA in English, I was a disappointed that she has gone in for an ungrammatical style in places, ie, the sub-heading, ‘Because women’. I know she wanted to write a book in a ‘populist’ style designed to appeal to those who see no need for conjunctions – but I don’t think in a book designed to ‘redeem the genre’s reputation’ as literature, this was a good idea, giving the impression that she is ignorant of the rules of grammar herself.

I have many other disagreements with the arguments the author puts forward, but if I went on, this review would turn into an essay. I will only mention one further one, that of romance as a form of escapism that is somehow argued by its feminist critics to be ’empowering’.

It seems that many romance readers read as many of these books as twenty a month. As the author admits that few women have much spare time after dealing with work and family responsibilities, this number of hours spent on reading what she admits is an ‘escapist literature’ which offers individual happy endings, is a lot of time taken away from doing something to improve the reality from which these women feel so strong a need to escape.

It is not as if I am against escapism -I enjoy a bit myself; but if a women feels such a strong need to get away from her reality for more than a short time, then it needs changing, and surely the way to do so is in company with other women – and men – rather than reading escapist literature by herself.

Overall, then, a stimulating read, though one with which I can’t, sadly, agree.

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