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  • Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass Market Fiction for Women
  • Kate Ellis
Jan Cohn. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988. 182 pp. $27.95.

One result of the methodological revolution in criticism is the legitimation not simply of noncanonical writers but also of practically authorless forms of popular culture. Harlequin romances and their spinoff labels, employing vast stables of women writing to formula under pseudonyms, are about as far from "great books" as it is possible to get. They are written, as Jan Conn's perceptive study reminds us, for the "vast numbers of women in our society who, much as feminists may lament it, feel more secure than threatened under the conditions of partriarchy." The Harlequin author, as much as her more respectable sisters, must negotiate cultural prescriptions for rewardable and censurable behavior that have changed during three centuries of contestation but which are nevertheless an essential component in the production of narrative.

The popular novel for women of the nineteenth century, Jane Tompkins has argued, "represents a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman's point of view." Studies of its twentieth-century counterparts, including this one, have taken this thesis as their implicit text. Of course this repositioning does not achieve its desired goals, and "romance ends," Cohn observes, "where it began, its resolution endlessly reenacting the contradiction it exists to dispel." The enacted contradiction is that of women acquiring power by being powerless, by being innocent of their desire for power and impervious to its attractions. Power in the marketplace and sexual power, both denied to the nineteenth-century heroes Cohn discusses, are united, she observes, in the Harlequin hero and conferred by him upon its heroine. No other power is congruent with true femininity, the only goal of the questing heroine.

The quest, moreover, is into an appropriately female "inner space," where the heroine must slay her own dragon: her fear that, in yielding to the sexual feelings the hero arouses, she will lose her autonomy and with it any possibility of self-derived, self-protective power. She is right: she must trust the hero, and the promise of the formula is that, by doing so, she will discover, and draw forth for him, that element in him that can be trusted. These steps constitute her journey to maturity, the sign of which is the hero's declaration of love. Through this declaration they become "equals," she having the power to domesticate his sexuality, he having wealth and worldly success that she appropriates through marriage. [End Page 749]

Using Lawrence Stone's distinction between "interest" and "affect" as motives for marriage, Cohn probes the denials and displacements surrounding a hero who, in a culture that views power and femininity as mutually destroying opposites, must be rich in order to offer the heroine the fantasy gratification of acquired power. But his view of women as "gold-diggers" must then be dispelled by a heroine drawn to him by "affect" alone. Bourgeois ideology defines true love as totally free of "interest," yet wealth must be part of the formula for heroes if upward mobility is to be valorized while maintaining marriage as the only way for women to achieve it. Cohn's point, which brilliantly ties the Harlequin romance into a larger cultural matrix, is that, in a world where the raised expectations of feminism must be negotiated on the way to a conservative patriarchal happy ending, "it is property rather than sexuality that has become unmentionable."

Kate Ellis
Rutgers University


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pp. 749-750
Launched on MUSE
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