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  • Guilty Pleasures: Reading Romance Novels as Reworked Fairy Tales
Abstract

Popular romance novels have much in common with traditional fairy tales: both are highly formulaic; invoke a fantasy realm; focus on the creation or reconciliation of a romantic pair; exist in an infinite variation of texts that fall into distinct types; and are often dismissed as being “trivial,” suggesting romantic fiction as a natural excursus of folkloristic inquiry into popular culture. This article examines how Beauty and the Beast (ATU 425C) is reworked in the paranormal romance subgenre. These erotic romances offer elaborated descriptions of the central couple’s intimate relationship, inverting the traditional fairy-tale structure by making the resolution of the male/female opposition the central narrative element.

Alternately dismissed as “trash,” “smut,” or “women’s pornography,” popular romance novels—and their readers—are often criticized, marginalized, and mocked. These novels, however, are the most popular of all genres of fiction. The statistics are staggering. According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance fiction had $1.37 billion in sales in 2006 and held a 26.4 percent share of the consumer book market. More than 64 million Americans read at least one romance novel in 2004, and 42 percent of these readers hold at least a bachelors’ degree (Romance Writers of America). Studies of romance readers suggest that a third of all women who read, read romance novels (for example, Radway; Williams; Williams and Freedman). These statistics demand we take romances seriously. This fiction genre is often dismissed simply because it is women’s fiction. In fact, many of the criticisms levied against it are also true of men’s formulaic fiction, such as detective novels. Romance novels have much in common with traditional fairy tales: both are highly formulaic; invoke a fantasy realm; focus on the creation or reconciliation of a romantic pair; exist in an infinite variation of texts that fall into distinct types; and are often dismissed as being “trivial.” With their prototypical marriage endings, criticisms are levied against both narrative forms for their failure to challenge the system of social relations and norms from which they arise. These similarities suggest romantic fiction as a natural excursus of folkloristic inquiry into popular culture. This is not the case, however; with few exceptions (such as Williams and Freedman; [End Page 52] Hains), folklorists and folklore journals have ignored this genre, preferring instead elite fairy-tale transformations by writers such as Angela Carter, A. S. Byatt, or Salman Rushdie.

Although scholars, authors, and publishers have noted the connection between traditional fairy tales and romance novels, the exact nature of this relationship is not well articulated. For example, in The Alienated Reader Bridget Fowler traces the history of the romance novel through fairy tales and novella, among other fictive forms. Unfortunately, she merely asserts this connection rather than articulates how they are related. This article is intended to address that lacuna, considering the romance genre in terms of its relationship to fairy tales, with particular attention to their parallel structures and the way that traditional tale types and motifs are reworked and eroticized. This represents an under-explored and under-theorized intersection of folklore and popular culture. I consider romance novels from myriad subgenres, with a particular focus on paranormal romance novels, which are more clearly fantastical and often include marvelous elements that are analogous to those found in traditional wonder tales, as well as the importance of the Beauty and the Beast tale type (ATU 425C) for popular romance.

In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis defines the romance novel as “a work of prose fiction that tells the story of a courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (19). The popular romance novels that are the subject of this inquiry are specifically about heterosexual couples, although there are both lesbian and gay romances that explore alternative sexual pairings.1 Despite the commonly held belief that “all romance novels are the same,” there is actually a great deal of variety within this broader generic category. And as with any other type of fictive genre, there are well-written and poorly written popular romance novels. The broad category of “romance” is comprised of numerous subgenres, including contemporary, historical, Regency, Western, inspirational, romantic suspense, and paranormal. Although there is certainly crossover among these categories, each subgenre includes its own set of formulas, conventions, motifs, and generic expectations.

This paranormal romance subgenre is a catchall category that includes diverse topics such as time travel, futuristic settings, magic, shape-shifters, supernatural creatures like werewolves and vampires, or other-world settings. In addition to the fantastical and marvelous elements, the paranormal subgenre has received comparatively less scholarly attention than other subgenres, yet it is one of the more rapidly growing segments of the romance industry. According to the RWA’s most recent romance industry statistics, 9 percent of the approximately 6,400 romance titles published in 2006 were paranormals; this demonstrates a substantial increase from the 120 paranormal titles released in 2003 and 173 titles released in 2004. [End Page 53]

Since the 1980s there has been a growing body of scholarship on popular romance genres, such as Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance, Janice Radway’s highly influential Reading the Romance, and Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution.2 Popular romance novels are often interpreted as providing insight into the way that women negotiate fantasy lives within patriarchal culture. Most scholarship on romance novels fall into one of two polarized camps that view these novels as conservative forms that uphold the existing patriarchal structure, or as subversive, resistant forms that challenge the existing structure. Many criticisms of romance novels are based primarily on its generic constraints; critics argue that these novels cannot challenge the existing patriarchal structure, because they end with the establishment or reunion of a heterosexual married pair. I contend that the question should be reframed as: How do popular romance novels subvert and challenge existing social structures within the confines of its form?

The popular romance novel is a dynamic cultural form, and publishers and writers respond to readers’ interests and cultural changes in a way that is unmatched by most other types of publishing and popular media (Williams; Williams and Freedman; Calhoun-French; Thurston 6–7). The popularity of the romance novel grew alongside the feminist movement in the 1970s. And although romance novels have been harshly criticized by feminist scholars, there are many women who consider themselves feminists who also read or write these novels.3 Scholars such as Ann Rosalind Jones and Dawn Heinecken have discussed how romances, especially those published since the 1990s, reflect a variety of feminist concerns.4 In the twenty years since the publication of Radway’s Reading the Romance, there have been many changes in the popular romance novel that warrant attention. Early romances featured restrained sexuality, with timid and passive virginal heroines, and since the mid-1980s the erotic element has been much more explicit. Scholars disagree on the importance of the erotic. Pamela Regis argues that the erotic is an “accidental” element of popular romance rather than a defining characteristic (30–39), but Carol Thurston identifies its primary classification distinction as being between the “sweet” and the “erotic” romances (6–8). In sweet romances there is sexual arousal and desire; in erotic romances there is explicit consummation of the sexual act. In contrast to the position that all romance novels present conservative patriarchal norms, the erotic romance portrays nontraditional sex roles, values, and power relationships as both natural and expected (Thurston 7–8). Its authors construct readily accessible images of female desire. Scholars have argued that in positioning woman as sexually active rather than passive, romance authors create a female subject of desire. This can destabilize the traditional gender variables of “which one does and which is done to,” imagining “a less aggressive pairing where both do and are done to” (Makinen, “Embodying the Negated” 42). Thus, the erotic images that [End Page 54] appear within popular romantic fiction may both reflect the values and sensibilities of the culture from which they emerge, and potentially transform the accepted norms through their imagined constructions.

The popularity of the erotic romance has grown tremendously since its early representatives, such as Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, published in 1971, and Rosemary Rogers’s Sweet Savage Love, published in 1974. Erotic historical romances of the 1970s and early 1980s, with their trademark racy covers depicting half-clothed women with heaving bosoms being ravished by shirtless, overpowering men, received a lot of bad press. Such “bodice-rippers” came to stand for the entire genre and were used to justify dismissing this “trivial” form of women’s fiction as naturalizing sexual violence against passive, naïve women through rape fantasies and other sexual brutalities. The distance created by the remote historical setting allowed women to “enjoy” the rape fantasy from a safe distance without ever confusing the eroticized fantasy rape with a brutal, dangerous, real-life rape.5 Based on her examination of twenty-five romances with captivity and rape motifs, Anne Kaler found that “authors must protect the readers from identifying with any realistic aspect of the capture—trauma, stress, or terror” and that readers interpret the capture and rape as fantasy, escape, and entertainment rather than as reality (94). Abby Zidle attributes the presence of these elements to the now-outdated belief within the romance publishing industry that women would accept premarital sex only if the heroine was coerced (25–26). By the mid-1980s, the rape fantasy was rejected; sexually active heroines began initiating encounters and authors began describing female sexual response more realistically (Thurston 25–27). Since the 1990s, sexual brutalities have become anathema within most mainstream popular romances, and the rape fantasy has been replaced with those that allow the heroine to explore and enjoy her sexuality both inside and outside of a committed relationship. Today, the only mainstream romance subgenre in which sexually violent elements are likely to appear is the paranormal romance (Tobin-McCain; Calhoun-French). Like their erotic historical romance predecessors, the paranormal romance is set in a remote and often exotic or unreal setting that is subject to a different set of rules and expectations than contemporary Western culture.

Erotic romance novels typically include numerous examples of various sexual acts that are usually described in an explicit manner, albeit using a highly coded language. Rosemary E. Johnson-Kurek offers an excellent examination of this coded language in “Leading Us into Temptation: The Language of Sex and the Power of Love.”6 For example, phrases like “velvet knobs” and “fiery sheaths” refer, respectively, to male and female genitalia. The frequency of these scenes, the sexual acts permitted, and the specific language used each varies by publisher and series, and published writers’ guidelines delineate what is acceptable for authors to include. Among the more explicit erotic romance offerings is a [End Page 55] blend of romance and erotica, sometimes referred to as “romantica.” This relatively new genre is perhaps best exemplified by the erotic romance novels published by Ellora’s Cave Publishing. These novels tend to be much more sexually explicit, sometimes incorporating difficult or controversial sexual situations, as well as graphic language.

While most scholars credit the novels of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë as the genre’s antecedents, romance novels also implicitly or explicitly draw on much older narrative forms, including fairy tales. Although scholars, authors, and publishers have noted the connection between fairy tales and romance novels, the exact nature of this relationship is not well articulated. Most of the scholars who attempt to describe this relationship lack adequate training in folkloristics to understand the nuances of the fairy-tale genre. For example, in “This Is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella: The Romance Novel as Feminist Fairy Tale,” scholar and author Jennifer Crusie Smith ignores the differences between active and passive female protagonists in fairy tales, obscuring the existence of the active protagonist of many feminine fairy tales:

And the fairy tale heroine always liquidates the lack; she always rises in status at the end, and she always achieves a marriage that assures her not only of love happily ever after but also of a family structure and protection. The most important aspect of this is the reason that the heroine lives happily ever after: the fairy tale assures the reader that warmth and love are the rewards that a good woman gets naturally. She does not have to earn the reward; in fact, she can sit in the ashes and she’ll still get her prince.

(55)

Although Smith does acknowledge structural similarities between the two forms, this point becomes one differentiator between “your mother’s fairy tales” and today’s romance novels, in which “all the heroines actively pursue their quests” (55). Janice Radway does draw on Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale in her Reading the Romance, but she does not attempt to understand the relationship between fairy-tale and romance novel structures. Instead, she uses Propp’s approach as a way to identify the narrative structure of romance novels.

Although many people associate fairy tales with children’s literature, fairy tales have never been intended only for young audiences. Fairy tales, like romance novels, target an adult audience and address adult concerns. They invoke a fictional, fantasy realm and express a collective fantasy for their audience. Despite the fear of romance critics, the audiences of both forms do not confuse reality with the fantasy presented; there is no element of belief in these genres. There are many ways that authors rework traditional fairy tales within romance novels. Love Spell, Harlequin, and other publishers have introduced series or imprints intended specifically as retellings of traditional fairy tales. For [End Page 56] example, since 1996, Love Spell has published titles such as Linda Jones’s Cinderfella in 1998 and Jackie and the Giant in 1999, and Victoria Alexander’s 2004 The Emperor’s New Clothes. Novels in this series bear a striking resemblance to their fairy-tale sources, with moves and motifs reworked in easily recognizable ways. For example, in Alexander’s The Princess and the Pea, published in 1996, the male protagonist’s mother is inspired by the fairy tale of the same name to “test” his prospective brides, rejecting those who fail her test. Some single-title popular romances consciously incorporate or rework fairy tales.7 Examples of such novels are Christine Feehan’s Lair of the Lion (2002), a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” heavily laced with Gothic overtones that I will discuss in detail later in this article, and several novels by Teresa Medeiros, including Charming the Prince (1999), a retelling of “Cinderella”; A Kiss to Remember (2001), a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”; The Bride and the Beast (2000) and Yours Until Dawn (2004), both versions of “Beauty and the Beast.” The vast majority of romance novels do not consciously invoke specific fairy tales, but many still implicitly draw on the tradition, its conflicts and quests, and occasionally its motifs. Cathy Lynn Preston states that “in postmodernity the ‘stuff’ of fairy tales exists as fragments . . . in the nebulous realm that we might simply identify as cultural knowledge” (210). Collectively, popular romance novels that consciously draw on or rework traditional fairy tales may be a type of “postmodern fairy tale.”8 Those romance novels that incorporate a variety of fairy-tale elements and motifs but do not necessarily strongly resemble or rework a particular fairy tale may be considered a “fairy-tale pastiche” (Jorgensen).

The formal aspects of these genres differ, but romances are structurally parallel to fairy tales. Jennifer Crusie Smith notes that the structural analyses of Vladimir Propp and Claude Lévi-Strauss are insufficient to isolate which elements of the Grimms’ “Cinderella” were incorporated into JoAnn Ross’s The Prince and the Showgirl, a 1993 Harlequin Temptation version of the tale. Ultimately, she argues that the forms do not share a common structure. Other structural approaches may be more useful in this endeavor. In particular, Danish folklorist Bengt Holbek’s five-move scheme offers a way to understand the relationship between the two forms. In The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Holbek argues that fairy-tale characters and actions resolve a set of oppositions: young/adult, male/female, and low-status/high-status. In “complete” fairy tales all of these oppositions are resolved, and “incomplete” fairy tales may resolve only a subset.9 In the first two moves, the initial crisis is resolved and the hero or heroine attains adult status. The third move resolves the male-female opposition with a romance or a marriage. The primary theme is the meeting of the hero and heroine. It is at this point that they fall in love. The last two moves involve a crisis in the new relationship, and the protagonist moves from low to high status with its resolution. Complete fairy tales may have a male and a female [End Page 57] protagonist that constitute the married pair, while incomplete fairy tales may include only a subset of these five moves.

This approach can be readily adapted to romance novels; just as in “complete” fairy tales, the heroine and the hero are repeatedly “tested.” Both characters mature and evolve to an adult or higher status. The heroine must do more than just exist; to be worthy of the hero she must act, thus earning her access to the hero by successfully completing a test.10 Romance novels with the “love at first sight” motif problematize this by suggesting that the heroine is always already loved by the hero, and paranormal romances featuring alternate worlds or supernatural species often exacerbate this issue with their common use of destined romantic partners.11 By a novel’s end, however, both protagonists have been repeatedly tested and become adult, high-status community members who are appropriate mates for each other. The most significant reworking of the fairy-tale structure occurs in Holbek’s move III, which is the creation of the romantic pair. Generally speaking, fairy tales provide few, if any, elaborations of this. The male and female protagonists meet, perhaps exchange recognition tokens, and then the story continues. There is, however, evidence suggesting that this stage sometimes implicitly includes sexual relations. For example, there are versions of tales in which Rapunzel gives birth to twins, Sleeping Beauty awakens to find she has given birth during her enchanted sleep, and the heroine who marries an animal bridegroom greets a human male in her bed every night. We see evidence of the sexual relationship (that is, children), but not the relationship itself. Erotic romances, in contrast, offer elaborated descriptions of the intimate bond. The romance novel inverts the fairy-tale structure by making Holbek’s move III—the resolution of the male/female opposition—the most important element. All of the action in the novel supports (or hinders) the development of the romantic pairing.

As an example, I present the work of Christine Feehan, a paranormal romance author who has consistently garnered P.E.A.R.L. awards—the Paranormal Excellence Award for Romantic Literature—since the publication of her first novel, Dark Prince, in 1999. My discussion will focus on Lair of the Lion, published in 2002, which is a retelling of ATU 425C, Beauty and the Beast. Lair of the Lion won several honors and awards, including the 2002 Romantic Times Reviewer Choice Award for Best Historical Paranormal Fantasy and the 2002 Golden Rose Readers Choice Award for Best Shapeshifter. Lair of the Lion also appeared on numerous best-seller lists, including New York Times, USA Today, Waldenbooks, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.12 Several of Feehan’s other novels—most notably her Dark series of paranormal romances featuring a vampire-like species called “Carpathians”—also incorporate motifs from this tale type, as well ATU 300, The Dragonslayer.13

This choice is not arbitrary. Beauty and the Beast and its variants are the tale types most frequently reworked within popular romantic fiction, with versions [End Page 58] of Cinderella (ATU 510A) a close second. Typical interpretations of Beauty and the Beast focus on the transformative power of love or on a shift in the female protagonist’s attitude toward sex from revulsion to pleasure. Alternate readings are possible, however. The broader cycle of The Search for the Lost Husband tales (ATU 425)—which includes Beauty and the Beast and The Animal as Bridegroom (ATU 425A)—depends on female agency to achieve the male protagonist’s transformation from animal or monster to human. Looking through the lens of female agency, these stories—both as fairy tales and romance novels—become a struggle for power. Within the context of the fairy tales, the heroine’s search for her lost husband provides an opportunity for a female quest, and the romantic reunion is motivated by the heroine’s desires and design rather than by her father’s or brother’s will.

It is unknown how old The Search for the Lost Husband and Beauty and the Beast tales are. In his historic-geographic study of ATU 425, Jan-Öjvind Swahn identifies ATU 425A as the oldest version of this tale cycle, and he attributes Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1756 “Beauty and the Beast,” an adaptation of Madame Gabrielle de Villeneuve’s 1740 longer, novel-length version, “The Story of Beauty and the Beast,” as the source of the tale as we know it today (296–312).14 Graham Anderson, however, suggests that ATU 425C might be a conflation of the “Europa and Zeus” and “Kallisto and Zeus” myths (69–71). Regardless of its source, it is Beaumont’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” that has come to dominate the Western European tradition, and it is clearly an important source for contemporary mass media versions, such as Disney’s 1991 animated film, Beauty and the Beast.15

In the romance novel, the change from Beast to prince is usually metaphorical. The male protagonist of historical romances with European settings may be physically or psychologically wounded, hiding away in his castle. During the novel, he becomes redeemed or reconciled to his physical flaws. Contemporary American romances of this type interpret the Beast differently. As Maryellen Hains notes in “Beauty and the Beast: 20th Century Romance?” the modern Beast is a product of the corporate world; he is austere, powerful, and amoral but usually not physically repulsive. Love and trust humanize this Beast as a “wealthy man of conscience” (77). Paranormal romance novels, however, are often closer to their fairy-tale counterparts in that they frequently depict male protagonists who are literally beasts or monsters, often vampires, werewolves, or demons of various sorts.

In Christine Feehan’s Lair of the Lion, Isabella Vernaducci offers herself to Don Nicolai DeMarco in exchange for rescuing her brother. Nicolai insists that they marry, even though the men of his family are cursed to appear as beasts and to tear out the hearts of those they love. The novel begins with many of the expected trappings of Beauty and the Beast tales. A young woman, alone, arrives [End Page 59] at a castle inhabited by a mysterious, beastlike man that no one outside the castle ever sees. Isabella willingly sacrifices herself for the sake of her closest male relative, who is being punished for his foolish actions. She is catered to by servants who provide her with abundant food and fine clothing. The incorporation of such motifs suggests that Feehan is familiar with versions of ATU 425C. The novel is told primarily from the heroine’s point of view, and in a reversal of the standard fairy-tale version of this type, the female protagonist is unable to see the hero’s beastly appearance. She sees only the “long, obscene scars” that mar the “perfection” of his face. Thus, for the reader, this Beauty and the Beast tale initially seems to be metaphorical rather than literal.

Each moment of contact between the male and female protagonist in Lair of the Lion is marked by a combination of eroticism and danger. Throughout the course of the novel, Nicolai repeatedly states that he is the only source of danger for Isabella—a fact emphasized when he accidentally scratches her, drawing blood, on two occasions early in the novel. The erotic is present from their initial brief physical contact: “Gratefully closing her hands around the hot cup, she accidentally brushed his skin with her fingertips. At the slight contact a whip of lightning leapt into her bloodstream, arcing and crackling, sizzling hot” (39). As happens in all romances, the heroine’s reaction to Nicolai marks him as different. The initial erotic contact awakens the heroine’s consciousness of her sexuality and signals that the hero is the one, the man on whom she can safely bestow her sexual desire and attentions. And later: “His thumb was stroking her sensitive inner wrist as he towered over her. The sensation was shocking, little tongues of fire licking up her arm, spreading over her skin until she was burning with some unnamed need she had never experienced. His eyes were staring at her with far too much hunger” (45). Physical contact elicits both sexual desire and a sense of physical danger. As more sexual contact occurs between Isabella and Nicolai, the danger and violence escalates. During their first interrupted attempt at sexual intercourse, just at the moment of penetration she sees him momentarily appear as a lion. When they finally do engage in sexual intercourse, he seems to transform into the Beast when he reaches orgasm—he “roars” and draws blood when he grips her hip too hard, presumably from the transformation of his fingers into claws. In this dual penetration of the heroine’s body, of her vagina and of her skin, the blood drawn echoes the more common smear of blood on the sheets that indicates loss of virginity. This scene inverts the standard transformation-by-love of “Beauty and the Beast”; here it is physical expressions of love/desire (that is, sex) rather than emotional love that is the catalyst for transformation, and the (momentary) transformation is from a controlled man to an uncontrolled beast.16

In another inversion of the standard Beauty and the Beast tale, Nicolai’s life is endangered not by Isabella’s refusal to accept him or by her forgetting to return [End Page 60] within a specified time frame, but by his own hand. His family’s curse predicts that he will kill his bride after an heir is secured, a fate that becomes increasingly insupportable as the love between the two characters develops. He vows, instead, to kill himself after they have children and the Beast within him grows stronger (329). In the final scene of conflict in the novel, the Beast threatens to take over Nicolai, and Isabella sees him fully as the Beast for the first time. In this moment she states both her love for and trust in Nicolai and her refusal to see him as the Beast, and she insists upon compassion for a killer rather than violence and revenge. After Nicolai accepts this path and states his own love, they share a kiss and the curse is magically lifted (358–64). The declaration of love and the kiss that follows, which are integral parts of the final resolution, echo many versions of ATU 425C.

The conflation/confusion of desire and danger, or eroticism and violence, persists throughout the novel, and it is a common trope of many popular romances. The not-so-veiled threat of sexual danger both heightens the eroticism of the popular romance and serves as a point of contention for feminists who are concerned with the larger cultural messages transmitted by the romance novel and what these indicate about women’s fantasies.

Romance novels communicate multiple and often contradictory cultural messages. Superficially, the physically strong alpha-male heroes—who can easily harm the female protagonists—seem to control all the power in these novels. As Jayne Ann Krentz notes, classic romances require that the part-villain hero be a source of danger for a heroine; successful heroes must present a real emotional or physical threat to heroines (107–09). Within the paranormal subgenre, often the male protagonists come from a cultural background in which men are dominant over women. The fact that novels and the fairy tales both end in a marriage or reunion does seem to privilege preservation of the existing social order. Bestselling novelist Susan Elizabeth Phillips suggests that there might be a different message, arguing that “the domineering male becomes the catalyst that makes the empowerment fantasy work” (56) and that confrontations between strong heroes and heroines—which are always ultimately won by the heroines of these novels—result in “taming” the hero. If we are to accept Phillips’s claim, how does the empowerment fantasy work? How do romance novels and their earlier fairy-tale forms negotiate access to romantic love and, by extension, masculine power? Jan Cohn argues that romances are really stories about power that are “deeply encoded” within stories about love, that these stories are about both the “secret sentimental and sensual delights of love” and the “forbidden pleasures of revenge and appropriation” (3). She makes a persuasive argument that the heroine’s success in popular romances means gaining access to money and power within patriarchal society. Based on her reading of contemporary romances that take place in real-world settings, she argues that the heroine’s real desire is [End Page 61] masked, that she desires not just the male hero but that “what is desired is authority itself, the power and autonomy the social system denies women” (5).

Both Phillips and Cohn locate the appropriation of male power as critical to the success of the fantasy presented by romance novels. Love, then, becomes the vehicle for achieving this goal. The heroine’s sexual response is understood to be a manifestation of her love for the hero, while his sexual response is understood as separate from his emotions. In a typical romance, his emotions are hidden. But it is not enough for the hero simply to love the heroine; he must admit that he loves her. Through his declaration of love—the successful resolution of the male/female opposition of the romance novel—he gives her access to him, to his economic resources, to his strength. Thus, knowledge of the inner world of the male other becomes the unstated goal. In Lair of the Lion it is Isabella’s knowledge of Nicolai’s true nature (she sees him as a man, not as a beast) that frees him from the curse and ensures the constancy of his affection. Knowledge of the male other is positioned as the route to female empowerment,17 and the battle for this knowledge is played out in the erotic realm. Just as the hero gains access to the heroine through sex, the heroine accesses knowledge of the hero’s emotions and, by extension, his power. This knowledge culminates in the moment when the romantic hero declares his love for the heroine and is, often literally, brought to his knees to propose marriage. Their union integrates the male and female into the married pair, providing the female protagonist with unlimited access to the male’s power. Rather than being “domesticated” by marriage, the heroine tames her arrogant, domineering, ruthless mate.

In contemporary culture the erotic popular romance novel serves the function once filled by the fairy tale. Fairy tales have been interpreted as encapsulating collective fantasies and providing a way for women to subvert and resist patriarchal norms. With this in mind, the erotic popular romance novel suggests many potential readings of contemporary feminine fantasies. Readership studies, such as Janice Radway’s, make it clear that women see these novels as escapist fantasies. If we reposition the conflict in romance novels from the quest of a love that conquers all to a struggle for power through knowledge of the other, it becomes possible to read these novels also as fantasies of female empowerment. Whether access to male power through the hero constitutes real power for the heroine, however, is a matter of debate, interpretation, and authorial choice. The extent to which a romantic heroine is able to exercise that power independently differs by subgenre, novel, author, and story.

Linda J. Lee

Linda J. Lee is a PhD student in folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, and she holds an MA in folklore from the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about gender and narrative, folk and fairy tales in particular. Her other research interests include women’s popular fiction and folklore; popular culture transformations of folklore; witchcraft legends, beliefs, and traditions; heritage, tourism, and regional identity; and Italian and Italian American popular traditions.

Footnotes

1. Lesbian romance, in particular, has received an increasing amount of scholarly attention since the 1990s. There are several essays on lesbian romance and erotic in Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey, Romance Revisited. [End Page 62]

2. Much of the romance novel scholarship seems intended to justify scholarly inquiry into the form; describe the conventions of the subgenres, characters, and plots (Kaler and Johnson-Kurek); examine the community of readers of romance novels (Williams and Freedman); or address the erotic and sexual aspects of these novels (Snitow; Thurston; and Tobin-McClain).

3. In the first chapter of The Romance Revolution, Carol Thurston discusses sociopolitical events that occurred during the 1970s, when the erotic romance novel emerged and evolved. See also Cohn 3–12. Author Alicia Rasley states in her essay “Paradox in Balance”: “I am a feminist and a romance writer. While I agree there is some measure of paradox in that, it is indeed this very paradox that draws so many women to romance fiction.”

4. The relationship between romance and feminist is contested. For an excellent discussion, see the chapter on “The Romance” in Merja Makinen, Feminist Popular Fiction; Bridget Fowler; Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey.

5. See Diane M. Calhoun-French; Kathleen Gilles Seidel. Nina Philadelphoff-Puren quotes a romance reader who makes it clear that readers are able to distinguish between rape fantasy and reality: “I think it is vital to separate reality from fantasy. . . . [rape] fantasies are about being forced to accept pleasure, which is a very different thing than some masochistic urge to be violated, to have violence done to you. . . . In real life there is no such thing as forced seduction. When a woman says no in real life, that means no, because in real life, rape is about violence and power. Rape in real life involves no pleasure for the woman” (32).

6. See also Mary M. Talbot.

7. Victoria Alexander has also written single-title romances that invoke and rework fairy-tale motifs. For example, the Regency-era When We Meet Again incorporates and inverts elements from Cinderella (ATU 510A). Pamela Effington and Prince Alexei meet in Venice at a masked ball and spend the night together. The recognition token is a distinctive Venetian glass ear bob accidentally left in his bed. Although he recognizes her midway through the novel, he admits this to her only in the last few pages, when he returns the ear bob.

8. See also Cristina Bacchilega; Talbot.

9. Holbek’s goal in his proposed methodology for analyzing fairy tales is actually to understand how the marvelous is represented in the everyday life of those who transmit these tales. I find the first part of his proposed method—which is concerned with the overall structure of the tales—to be more useful. See Holbek 404–51.

10. Author Alison Hart (who writes using the pen names Jennifer Greene, Jeanne Grant, and Jessica Massey) identifies a heroine’s quest as the key element of a romance novel: “A love story is certainly the track for the train in a romance. But it is not the train. It is not the ‘guts’ of the book. Romances are women’s quest books. At the heart of every story—and a key to defining and understanding the romance ‘formula’—is the individual heroine’s quest. . . . She is not only ‘tested’ on this quest, but through the book she will fail, several times, as she stumbles for the right answers that will help her overcome this problem” (97). Jan Cohn also discusses popular romance in terms of the heroine’s quest (15–37).

11. Almost every paranormal romance invokes the idea that lovers are destined. Time-travel romances are about love that transcends the boundaries of time. Predestined loves or “the other half of one’s soul” have many different names, depending on the author and the conventions of her supernatural world. Just a few examples should [End Page 63] suffice: in Christine Feehan’s “Dark” series, Carpathians have lifemates; books in Kresley Cole’s “Immortals After Dark” series have Brides (for vampires) or mates (for Lykaes); and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s were-characters have “mates.”

12. A complete list of awards appears on Christine Feehan’s Web site at http://www.christinefeehan.com/lair_of_the_lion/index.html\#awards .

13. The first book in this series is Dark Prince, published in 1999. To date, Feehan has published eighteen titles in this series, including a hardcover reunion novel, Dark Celebration, in 2006. The nineteenth title of the series, Dark Curse, is due out in hardcover in September 2008.

14. English translations of both tales are published in Jack Zipes, Beauties, Beasts, and Enchantment (233–45, 153–229).

15. Jack Zipes offers a cogent introduction to the history of this tale type in the head-note to the section of “The Beast as Bridegroom” in The Great Fairy Tale Tradition (787–89). For in-depth examinations of these tale types, see also Apuleius; Bacchilega; Bettelheim; and Griswold.

16. The idea that sex is transformative is also suggested in Villeneuve’s literary version of “Beauty and the Beast”; the Beast is transformed only after the couple’s wedding night.

17. This idea is fully developed in Christine Feehan’s Dark series. After Carpathian lifemates are ritually bonded, they are able to enter their lifemate’s mind, read their memories, and know their thoughts. Lies are impossible between lifemates. This frequent shared mental contact is not only natural and easy, but also necessary when lifemates are not in each other’s physical presence.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-1802
Print ISSN
1521-4281
Pages
52-66
Launched on MUSE
2008-09-05
Open Access
No
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