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A Natural History of the Romance Novel

By Pamela Regis

Publication Year: 2007

The romance novel has the strange distinction of being the most popular but least respected of literary genres. While it remains consistently dominant in bookstores and on best-seller lists, it is also widely dismissed by the critical community. Scholars have alleged that romance novels help create subservient readers, who are largely women, by confining heroines to stories that ignore issues other than love and marriage.

Pamela Regis argues that such critical studies fail to take into consideration the personal choice of readers, offer any true definition of the romance novel, or discuss the nature and scope of the genre. Presenting the counterclaim that the romance novel does not enslave women but, on the contrary, is about celebrating freedom and joy, Regis offers a definition that provides critics with an expanded vocabulary for discussing a genre that is both classic and contemporary, sexy and entertaining.

Taking the stance that the popular romance novel is a work of literature with a brilliant pedigree, Regis asserts that it is also a very old, stable form. She traces the literary history of the romance novel from canonical works such as Richardson's Pamela through Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Brontë's Jane Eyre, and E. M. Hull's The Sheik, and then turns to more contemporary works such as the novels of Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Janet Dailey, Jayne Ann Krentz, and Nora Roberts.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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Preface: The Most Popular, Least Respected Literary Genre

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pp. xi-xiii

This book defines the modern romance novel written in English and traces its development from 1740 through the 1990s. The definition and literary history of the romance novel will provide critics with a clearer understanding of the genre's nature and scope. They will also form the basis...


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1. The Romance Novel and Women's Bondage

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pp. 3-7

More than any other literary genre, the romance novel has been misunderstood by mainstream literary culture -- book review editors, reviewers themselves, writers, and readers of other genres, and, especially, literary critics. Deborah Kaye Chappel has characterized...

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2. In Defense of the Romance Novel

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pp. 8-16

Romance novels end happily. Readers insist on it. The happy ending is the one formal feature of the romance novel that virtually everyone can identify. This element is not limited to a narrow range of texts: a marriage--promised or actually dramatized--ends every romance novel....


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3.The Definition

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pp. 19-25

As this definition is neither widely known nor accepted, it requires no little defense as well as some teasing out of distinctions between the term put forward here, "romance novel," and terms in widespread use, such as "romance" and "novel." I begin with the broadest term, "romance."...

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4.The Definition Expanded

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pp. 27-45

Thus far interpretation of the romance novel has focused heavily on the ending in part because the other essential narrative elements of the form have remained unidentified. A romance novel...

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5.The Genre's Limits

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pp. 47-50

The eight essential elements of the romance novel represent the core of the genre. In addition to the three optional elements which appear in some, but not all, romance novels, other kinds of material, other sorts of scenes are often incorporated. As long as the focus...


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6. Writing the Romance Novel's History

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pp. 53-61

In Part III I trace the history of the romance novel in English from the beginning of its modern ascendancy in the mid-eighteenth century to the twentieth century when the form becomes a wholly popular one. Most critics writing about...

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7. The First Best Seller: Pamela, 1740

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pp. 63-74

My exploration of the history of the romance novel in English begins with Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740), the story of the courtship, betrothal, wedding, and triumph of lady's made Pamela Andrews to Mr. B., the mast for whom she works....

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8. The Best Romance Novel Ever Written: Pride and Prejudice,1813

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pp. 75-84

Jane Austen is the master of the romance novel. She published six but had written only Pride and Prejudice (1813), her command of the form would be indisputable. For this reason Pride and Prejudice served as a case study in Part II to illustrate...

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9. Freedom and Rochester: Jane Eyre, 1847

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pp. 85-91

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847) received the same sort of popular acclaim as Pamela and Pride and Prejudice (Allott 20). The critic writing for the North American Reivew described the book's popularity in New England as...

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10. The Romance Form in the Victorian Multiplot Novel: Framely Parsonage, 1861

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pp. 93-98

In Framley Parsonage (1861) Anthony Trollope enjoyed his first popular success. It is the fourth of Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire--a set of six novels that share a fictional geography, interlaced characters, and a thematic preoccupation with the church in a Cathedral town....

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11. The Ideal Romance Novel : A Room with a View, 1908

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pp. 99-119

In Part III I trace the history of the romance novel in English from the beginning of its modern ascendancy in the mid-eighteenth century to the twentieth century when the form becomes a wholly popular one. Most critics writing....


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12. The Popular Romance Novel in the Twentieth Century

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pp. 107-123

In Part IV, I examine the courtship in a shelfful of the most popular romance novels of the past century. These twenty-five titles by five writers provide the beginnings of a canon for the twentieth-century popular romance. The five writers who belong in any list of canonical...

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13. Civil Contracts: Georgette Heyer

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pp. 125-141

Beginning in 1921, Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) wrote one and sometimes two historical romance novels per year until her death in 1974. A 1984 survey taken in Great Britain of the public library reported that between four and six copies of her novels were borrowed on any given day (Glass 283). Copies in public libraries...

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14. Courtship and Suspense: Mary Stewart

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pp. 143-154

Mary Stewart (1916-) is the mother of twentieth-century romantic suspense. Between 1955 and 1967 Stewart produced, at the rate of about one per year, ten novels in this subgenre. All have entered the canon...

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15. Harlequin, Silhouette, and the Americanization of the Popular Romance Novel: Janet Daily

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pp. 155-168

In 1975, when Janet Dailey (1944-) sold her first novel to Harlequin, the center of the popular romance novel began to shift away from Great Britain. There the form had been important to the development of the British novel. There the form had been popularized...

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16. Dangerous Men: Jayne Ann Krentz

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pp. 169-181

Jayne Ann Krentz (1949- ), whose pseudonyms include Jayne Taylor, Jayne Castle, Guinevere Jones, Amanda Glass, Stephanie James, and Amanda Quick, lists more than 130 romance novels in her bibliography. More than seventy are short....

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17. One Man, One Women: Nora Roberts

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pp. 183-204

Since 1981, Nora Roberts (1950-) has published over 150 novels, most of them romance. As J.D. Robb she has written a series of police procedurals set in the New York City of the future with a female homicide detective as a heroine. She wrote at least one early title as Jill March...

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pp. 205-207

The romance novel is old. The form is stable. Since the birth of the novel n English, the romance novel as I have defined it here--the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines--has provided a form for novels. What is more, the form has attracted writers of...

Works Cited

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pp. 209-218


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pp. 219-224

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pp. 225

My husband, Ed Regis, listened to me talk about romance, helped me find my arguments, read portions of the manuscript, and compiled the index. He cleaned the house and kept my car running. He walked the dog...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203103
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812215229

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2007