Shall I whisper it to you under the memory of the last rose of summer . . . I am very fond of romances! . . . Have you in you any surviving innocence of this sort? Or do you call it idiocy?—If you do, I will forgive you, only smiling to myself, I give you notice, with a smile of superior—pleasure!Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning, Thursday, March 20, 1845
Blame it on my innocence or my idiocy, as you please. Like Elizabeth Barrett, I am "very fond of romances," and for the past few years have read them with increasing (not to say "superior") pleasure. A muffled burst of laughter introduced me to the genre. It came, I recall, on a snowy night in my senior seminar on Possession: A Romance, as we threaded A. S. Byatt's postmodern quadrille with Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet as our [End Page 307] dancing master. A moment before, Carson had proposed that we "superimpose on the question 'What does the lover want from love'" two new questions: "'What does the reader want from reading? What is the writer's desire?'" The answer, she hazards, to my enduring dismay as a poetry scholar, is "novels." As evidence, she points to the origins of prose fiction in the ero-tika pathe-mata, or tales of the sufferings of desire, that blossomed in the third century B.C.E. In these love stories, Carson explains,
[t]he novelists play out as dilemmas of plot and character all those facets of erotic contradiction and difficulty that were first brought to light in lyric poetry. Rival lovers appear around every corner of the plot. Pretexts for pursuit and flight ramify from page to page. Obstacles to romantic union materialize in tireless variety. The lovers themselves devote considerable energy to obstructing their own desire—should interfering parents, cruel pirates, bungling doctors, dogged graverobbers, dull slaves, mindless divinities and the whims of chance not suffice.1
At which point one student, Diotima in Doc Martens, chortled, "Oh, my God! That sounds just like the plot of Skye O'Malley!"
Only a handful of Contemporary Literature's readers will know this extravagant early work by Bertrice Small, one of the first novels to give an explicitly feminist cast to the much-maligned erotic historical romance of the 1970s and 1980s, the so-called bodice ripper. Fewer still will see this particular lacuna as a problem. Alas, disdain for popular romance fiction remains a way to demonstrate one's intelligence, political bona fides, and demanding aesthetic sensibility, even in circles where resistance to such orthodoxies is the norm. (Thus, for example, Ron Silliman has dismissed the poetry establishment's "School of Quietude" as "the verse equivalent of the Harlequin novel." I study both; if only this were true!)2 That romance novels can, themselves, display intelligence, worthy politics, and aesthetic [End Page 308] accomplishment remains one of the best-kept secrets in literary study, however easy to find and read the books themselves may be.
Where shall we place the blame for this occlusion? "The Romance Genre Blues, or Why We Don't Get No Respect," by novelist Candice Proctor, opens Sally Goade's anthology Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels with one melancholy answer. Rejecting the assumptions that "it's patriarchy's fault" and that "what we have here is simply an image problem based on blind prejudice," Proctor argues...