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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic


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Well, there is that, after all: A definition of "romance novel"

Dear BookLikes Friends and Followers:


An odd, brief conversation last night at least took my mind off the worries brought on by the new water heater and spurred some examination of reference materials I've already assembled.  When another odd, brief conversation early this morning further goaded my curiosity, I began putting some of my thoughts onto paper, literally, with a few thoughts scribbled in pencil on notebook paper.


Nothing would probably have come of it if yet a third odd, brief conversation later this morning hadn't led to the terrifying decision to replace the water softener this afternoon.  This was originally a purchase intended to be put off for a few weeks or more, but it has now become urgent.  Schedules and finances being what they are, this is neither convenient nor comfortable.


Sometime today, probably after we get back from buying the water softener, I'm going to start a Ko-fi.com page.  My brain is too befuddled right now to deal with Patreon, and I'm not sure I can keep to a regular schedule, much as I need to.  But we will see.  We will see.


Your comments as always are very much appreciated.


Thus, I began:




Chapter One: What is a "romance novel"?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”


    The opening line of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has long served as a template for the traditional romance novel: male hero of independent financial means should have a wife, who is the heroine of the story.  The irony, of course, is that the progress of this particular story – which also serves as a template -- reverses the obvious.  If the man wants a wife, the woman needs the man.  Though the two words may have similar meanings, they are not identical.  In the business of writing, precise meanings of words do matter.
    While Austen's statement appears to be typical patriarchal, heterosexist propaganda, the template easily expands to comfortably cover a wide range of relationships.  One person (male, female, shifter, demon, vampire, angel, etc.) has something of value (skill, position, money, strength, power, talisman) that is also valued by another person  (male, female, shifter, demon, vampire, angel, etc.) and they need/want both the valued thing and each other to be complete (happy, alive, productive, reproductive, etc.)
    A romance story, then, always has at least two main characters whose interpersonal relationship stands at the center of the action.  If the story does not end with the successful establishment of their relationship in a more or less permanent manner and the resolution of any obstacles preventing it, then it is not a romance novel.
    "And they all lived happily ever after – together" is therefore absolutely essential for a novel to be considered a romance novel.
    Other book-length stories can be romantic.  They can even be romances by the classical definition distinguishing realism from romance.  But a romance novel per se and for the purposes of this analysis must have an HEA – Happily Ever After – or at the very least an HFN – Happy For Now – ending.
    Erich Segal's Love Story is not a romance novel.  Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind is not a romance novel.  Scarlett and Rhett are not happily together at the end of the book. Scarlett and Ashley aren't, Melanie and Ashley aren't.  It's not a romance novel.  Bridges of Madison County isn't a romance novel.  Lord of the Rings is not a romance novel, though it contains the romance stories of Arwen and Aragorn, Eowyn and Faramir.  Those relationships are not at the core of the narrative, and resolution of the relationships is not the ending of the tale.  William Morris's The Well at the World's End comes closer to a romance novel than LOTR because Ralph and Ursula's relationship is more woven throughout the adventure, but it is not the central quest.
    Ralph's quest is to find the Well, just as Frodo's quest was to destroy the Ring.  There was no romantic relationship for Frodo to resolve; Ralph and Ursula's relationship was complicated by his search for the Well, but their relationship did not depend on the outcome, nor was his quest an obstacle to their relationship.
    In a romance novel, the relationship is more important than anything else, even though it is not the only element.
    If the film You've Got Mail were a novel, it would fit the definition of romance novel, even though there are many who find the ending problematic.  The ending illustrates, however, that the relationship is more important than the external conflicts around it.  Endings do not have to be satisfactory for the reader (or viewer), but they must be successful for the characters.  Successful, going back to the Austen template, means a committed (at least "for now" if not "ever after") romantic relationship.
    If Pride and Prejudice serves as the palimpsest for romance novels of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it must also be examined against its own historical underpinnings.