Romance and Novels: A Spoonful of Brooding Heroes Makes the Medicine Go Down


By Dixie Laite, // I read a lot when I was young, and I learned to hope. This was good and bad. Dozens of books (some classics, some silly) taught me that those you look to for love may seem cold and sullen, but beneath these exteriors lie depths of feeling. Whether it’s through Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Rochester in Jane Eyre, or Lord Broodingpuss from any number of romance novels, young women devouring these stories come to rely on the fact that under all suave diabolism beats a tender heart.

Assuming this to be a universally applied fact akin to scientific principles of physics (whatever physics were), I took comfort in its implication. Sure, you feel unloved, but you’re wrong. Whew; maybe you are not inadequate. Whew; turns out you aren’t unwanted after all. Those you love do perceive your worth, they just don’t show it because of some tragedy/dignity/depth (take your pick). I applied this lens first to family members, later to members of the opposite sex.

This notion that surly men who ignore or insult you actually adore you permeates popular culture and the minds of millions of women we deem should know better. But this idea isn’t just seductive, it’s much-needed solace. It’s consolation for those who have no options, or think they don’t. In Janice Radway’s* book, Reading the Romance, she explores how romance novels, perhaps the most demeaned of all literary genres, are used by millions of women. Traditional romances’ qualities are disparaged, but Dr. Radway argues that critics should look beyond the plots and ideologies to individual readers’ engagement with the text.

Her approach combines anthropology, psychology, sociology, and a feminist lens. Radway’s research discovered that women found more than escape in the books.  They also found strong, independent female avatars, and strong, tender male heroes who delivered attention missing from their own lives.

As one reader said, “We read books so we won’t cry.”

romance novels

Critics belittle the simplicity of romance novels’ texts (and TV movies’ plots), but Reading the Romance proffers the idea that this simplicity is not artistic stupidity but a reliable templated tool delivering invigorating messages of self-worth and “the ability to take on a patriarchal world”.  Women needed these books; some read multiple books in a one day.

According to Wikipedia, Dr. Radway found women read romances both to “protest and escape temporarily the narrowly-defined role prescribed for them by a patriarchal culture”. (Though she did hope to encourage women to deliver their protests in the arena of actual social relations rather than to act them out in the solitude of the imagination.) I used to think this “resist the patriarchy” narrative was wishful thinking on her part.  But now if I look back on my younger self’s engorgement and reliance on books and movies, I see what she meant.

As a teen, roughly a million years ago, I was a lovelorn young woman who wouldn’t have called herself a feminist. What we now call patriarchy I just accepted as reality, and wanted to be accepted in that reality. I would have been thrilled just to be invited on to the dance floor at the patriarchy party; it never occurred to me to expect or even want a seat at the table. But my limited expectations didn’t mean my desires were equally constrained. While I consciously may not have wanted independence and a life outside of domestic pursuits, my fantasies did not tell that story. Most of the romance stories culminated before the wedding day. They were all courtship or subtextual courtship. My favorite books, like Pride and Prejudice and French Lieutenant’s Woman, and my favorite movies like His Girl Friday and Hitchcock’s Notorious, all involved strong, independent heroines who didn’t seem like the whistle while you work (scrubbing the bathroom floor) types.  

romance novels

In college I had a massive crush on a grad student…let’s call him L. It’s pathetic, but not because L wasn’t obsessed with me, too. He was. But we didn’t get together because he was the very embodiment of all those dour, supercilious, closed-off and withholding leading men in the books I’d read.  Though not affectionate, forthcoming or even particularly kind, I’d set my cap on him. I’d fantasized being at home all day, waiting for him to come home. That was it. (Somehow, I was always making pancakes in this scenario. VERY unrealistic in that (1) I wasn’t 100% sure how to make pancakes**, and (2) I’d have been eating them as fast as I could make them – none left on the platter for loverboy when he trudged home at 6.) Thankfully, L was so freaking Rochester-y he couldn’t close the sale, and I have been spared the pain of a horrible first marriage, and ever having to learn to cook. But thanks to all the Gothic romances and dark noir films I’d devoured, the bouquet of red flags seemed more like roses. I didn’t fall for L in spite of his flaws but because of them. And I wager many women could have said the same thing.

I’m grateful that I wised up enough to decode warning signs rather than be drawn to them. My eyes, not my hips, roll when I encounter that Heathcliff bullshit in print, on screen or on a barstool. I admit I’m sometimes still a sucker for a well-crafted reimagining of that Jane Eyre shiz, but I never inhale. To all my sisters out there: do what entertains you, do what empowers you. But if there’s a IRL guy you could easily picture standing on a cliff scowling into the distance – do yourself a favor and run, don’t walk, in the other direction.

* Dr. Radway was one of my professors in college, roughly a million years ago.

**I’m still not sure. I know it involves batter.