The romance novel is often described as a conservative genre, inflexible in its narrative forms and committed to reproducing traditional social structures. Yet historically the genre has had a disruptive rather than stabilizing effect on British cultural identity. This article reads Mary Renault’s first romance novel, Purposes of Love, against the backdrop of interwar attacks on popular fiction. Renault’s startlingly dark novels reveal a common thread between the conservative commitments of the romance and the eugenics-inflected rhetoric of highbrow literary criticism. The bleakness of their purportedly happy endings also raises questions about the political investments of contemporary recovery projects.