The Wicked World of Romance Books 

An essay on feminism, murder, sex, and fake suicides.

Student Commentary

By Stéphanie Vicintin de Vasconcellos / Matthew staff | | Edited by Gioia Kunst

Joseph Frédéric Charles Soulacroix (1825-1879) – The Embrace – 1663 – Guildhall Art Gallery.

THE ROMANCE GENRE HAS ALWAYS BEEN A POWERHOUSE. Perhaps because since its contemporary start in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it has been a space for revolution. Its evolution is marked by its eternal crash with the status quo. For instance, the genre was founded during an era in which the female kind was expected to be subservient and obedient to men. Instead, the genre provided women with a space to govern unabashedly, with authors like Jane Austen writing about female protagonists and female-oriented stories and men serving as the supporting characters. More recently, it has broadened its scope to fulfill the unmet needs of other minority groups as well, such as those of the LGBTQ+ community, with queer romance literature exploding since the start of the 21st century. Nonetheless, as Newtown’s Third Law of Motion states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” And for all its wondrous tradition of revolution, the romance genre has not been immune to this, hiding an equally deviant past just below the surface. 

The earliest example that comes to mind is that of Charlotte Brontë, writer of one of the most renowned literary pieces of all time: Jane Eyre. Despite oftentimes being remembered as a prudish and dark hermitress of the moors, Brontë was far closer to being a sex-crazed icon. Not only did she frequently write to friends about her sexual frustrations and fantasies, she also shamelessly pursued a far older and married man, writing him letters with brazen declarations such as “I would write a book and dedicate it to my literature master – to the only master I have ever had – to you Monsieur.” When he did not share her affections, she went on to immortalize him as Mr. Rochester, her leading lady’s tempestuous and erotic hunk. Although, in the novel, Jane’s love is reciprocated. 

Fascinatingly, outspoken characters being rewarded with tamed rakes is a trend of the early days of the romance genre. Marked by their frustrated authors and their equally frustrated audiences, these novels served them as an escape from their subservient and puritan role in society. Hence why this period is remembered as an era of defying social conventions, with books such as Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre rewarding the outspoken and/or independent female leads with the most desirable and wealthy of men and a life of happily-ever-afters. 

The romance genre changes next during the culmination of the World Wars; namely when women were forced back into the role of housewife after briefly tasting independence when the men were off at war. Hence, this is an era still marked by escapism, but also by a new desire: the desire to be financially independent. Most novels were now being set in ‘exotic’ and distant locales, like the Wild West or Africa. And as for the leading ladies, albeit just as lively as their nineteenth-century counterparts, they now held jobs, with stewardesses and nurses being the most common professions. Yet, in spite of this early feministic streak, these books are still notorious for their blatant racism, xenophobia, and stereotyping. 

Gone with the Wind book cover, 1999.

For instance, the most popular romance novel of the time, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, was released in 1936, and it quickly became a staple of American literature. Despite deserving merit for challenging social constructs of the time, Gone with the Wind is still wretchedly racist in all ways a work of fiction can be.

For instance, it portrayed several historical fallacies in order to glorify the Confederate South, and consequently, to demonize the Union Army and the Northern ‘Carpetbaggers.’ Furthermore, it blatantly stereotyped African Americans with several classic racist archetypes making frequent appearances. And lastly, through characterization, Mitchell perpetuates the eugenics notion that Black people are inferior and less smart than their Caucasian counterparts, excluding any leading Black characters, as well as labeling all of them as naive, “semi-alphabetized,” and two-dimensional supporting characters. 

The Flame and the Flower book cover, 1972. 

Later, as the sexual liberation movement reached its peak in the 1970s, women once again fended off to reform the genre for themselves. The “bodice-ripper” literary genre was born out of female boredom with the asphyxiating world of male pornography, which did little to satisfy them, and it had Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower as its founder. It was characterized best by The New York Public Library as “historical fiction novels that usually featured a beautiful, virginal, yet fierce and independent, woman who would catch the attention of a handsome alpha male who would attempt to seduce and dominate her.” In sum, they were those wickedly cheap paperbacks— the ones with questionable covers your mothers, grandmas, and aunts most likely hid under their beds in the 80s. 

“Boddice-ripper” authors, such as Danielle Steel and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, pushed the limit with what female writers could get away with, as well as encouraged women to explore crevices of themselves they weren’t previously even allowed to know of. Nonetheless, there is a reason why this subgenre has been driven to its relative extinction, or at least the extinction of it in its original format. Earlier novels were oftentimes littered with glorified sexual assault scenes. These were incredibly graphic descriptions of rape that were most often written as acts of love and/or necessary characterization for the domineering male romantic interests. Together with bowl cuts, this is a trend that thankfully died off in the 1990s.

Lastly, we get to the 21st century. Similar to the rest of our contemporary society, the romance genre of today is characterized by the digital age. Specifically, it is defined by the rise of self-publication programs like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing or Wattpad, which allow relatively anyone to release relatively anything with relatively little oversight. At first glance, this seems to be only incredibly beneficial, since it grants aspiring authors the unprecedented opportunity to release their works. Furthermore, self-publication programs are responsible for fostering an avalanche of inclusivity that was long past due. By virtue of these softwares, the genre, which upward to this century was predominated by white heterosexual women, has now expanded to include protagonists of all shapes, sizes, and walks of life. 

Yet, with all this unfettered freedom, questionable individuals (perhaps no longer muffled by the publishing world) are now crawling from the woodwork. For instance, I am reminded of the recent scandal of Miss Susan Meachen, a lit-erotica writer of medium-sized fame. Meachen faked her death for two years while she milked her fans for money to cover ‘funeral costs’ and for the funds to release her “lastS book. However, two years later, Meachen was mysteriously resurrected and admitted to the hoax (although she provided no clear motive). She is currently working on her next project, though there seems to be little traction. Refusing to refund the donations, Meachen claims that although she didn’t kill herself, her fraudulent act served as a lesson on cyberbullying, as well as an example of writers are supposed to do. According to her, she has the duty to live a life that borders fiction to create exciting stories, and this has all been research for her new book. In a way, Susan Meachen is the lit-erotica equivalent of Jared Leto, a method actor who doesn’t know where to draw the line. 

Another curious tale is that of Nancy Brophy, an indie writer who commenced her career as a romance novelist; that is, until she switched to thrillers when she published an essay titled “How to Murder Your Husband.” This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, of course. However, Brophy was later charged with murdering her husband. In true Agatha Christie fashion, she attempted to frame the murder as a “robbery gone wrong.” To the police, she stated she had no reason to kill her husband; that her only problem with him was that he “fattened her up” with his cooking. Nonetheless, not even a week later she was caught desperately trying to cash in his life insurance, the same insurance she had previously instructed him to upgrade. At this point, the police had already gained access to several of her gun purchase receipts, one of which matched the gun used on her husband. 

In sum, the romance genre has always been and always will be a revolutionary space. It is a severely underappreciated corner of the literary world that is brimming with expression and creativity. To its readers, the genre stands for hope, escapism, independence, and courage, all wrapped in a voguish silk red bow. Nonetheless, under the pretty wrapping and past Pride and Prejudice and The Notebook, it hides its own dark and decrepit side, a background of horror simply waiting to be explored.