The Spreading Branches of Romance


“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Last month, I posted about the varieties of Regency romances I’d been discovering,  and in the process gave a thumbnail history of the romance novel since the seventies—from my perception.

Well, that kicked off an exchange with some fellow readers, two of whom claimed never to have read a romance. But when I mentioned titles they’d read and loved and pointed to online reviews that made it clear some readers filed these squarely under romance—and loved them for it— they began to get the idea that ‘romance’ had begun broadening out to more or less match the old dictionary definition of romance.

Since I’d been cudgeling my brain trying to come up with a topic for this week’s blog (after 260 of ’em it’s getting tougher to think up what to write about–suggestions gratefully received) I thought I’d go ahead and summarize our discussion here, and see what others think.

reading horror

To start off, I floated an amendment to the dictionary definition, to say that a romance can be any of those sub-definitions, but it has to have an upbeat ending, which usually includes finding love/a place/meaning, preferably all three.

Yes? No?

At least as I see it from here, it’s been many years since the romance novel was constrained to one basic plot: heroine hangs onto her virginity until she gets a ring/wedding bells. Actually, it’s been a generation. People can laugh about the bodice rippers of the late seventies (and in some cases rightly so) but those began breaking that glass ceiling of good girl guilt, and since then romance has grown, ramified through all genres, and flourished.

So we started discussing books that may or may not be marketed as romances, but that didn’t conform to what they’d understood as romances. For instance, Annamarie Selenko’s long-loved Desiree was marketed strictly a historical novel but there are many of us who fell in love with that book at a young age for the romance. When I read it in later years, noted that it was structured very much like a romance.

So one person pointed out that that was exactly why she’d been reading Judith Tarr’s historical fantasies for years: for the romances. As well as the world-building and all that, but yeah, causing one person to point out that relabeling novels as romances might upset some people.

In another conversation, up came the question: why? That seems to bring us right back to romances being “lesser” on the Great Ladder of Literary Worth. You know, well below important books written by important men in which the characters are trying to kill each other, or set state against state. Books about power are important. Books about fundamental human relations and the search for happiness just have no literary merit, nuh uh.

Finally one asked me for examples of some recent reading that weren’t marketed as romances, but were what I thought of as romances.

A recent BVC omnibus release, Jennifer Stevenson’s Hinky Chicago series was first to mind. The books themselves came out a few years ago, and the omnibus cover definitely evokes a subgenre of romance, but they weren’t originally published as romance or fantasy, they’re more magical realism.

The three books can be read independently of one another, though they all center around Jewel Heiss, whose boss sends her undercover to investigate what these matter-of-fact Chicagoans call . . . no, can’t quite get the m-word out, so they sidle along with “hinky.” You know, like the gritty marshals who are chasing Dr. Richard Kimble say in The Fugitive.

Hinky Chicago

Only here, it means an elusive kind of magic that no one can pin down. But Chicago is full of it, and weird stuff is happening that can’t be explained away.

Told in a deceptively funny, raunchy narrative voice, these books delve into some meaningful discussions of love, trust, family, identity, and other on-the-nose observations about human life and interaction. Very much in the tradition of magical realism, but they come to upbeat endings, which can include . . . romance. So I think of them under my big spreading tree of romance.

Then there is the romantic suspense novel, which is still romance, but has the heart-rate-escalating tension, action, and mega body count of a thriller. I read two of these recently, no, I inhaled them: Spotless,  by Camilla Monk, and its sequel (which I liked even better), Beating Ruby.


Not only does the heroine have more agency in the second one, there is actually a love triangle—something that usually causes my eyes to roll—but the dynamics were so gripping I just sat and read until the last page, my work forgotten. Woven into the high-octane action and spycraft is all kinds of meta about romances that had me cracking up. The narrative voice, the humor, had me hooked from the first paragraph.

beating ruby

These two authors are nothing like one another, except in creating complex characters, andunpredictable storylines, that left me smiling on the last page: romance.

Suggestions of other romances that might not seem to be romances welcome, or even romances that are, but which might draw in the reader who has never read one and might like to give them a try.



The Spreading Branches of Romance — 26 Comments

  1. I note the medieval tale did not have to have love themes. The tales of Charlemagne and his paladins did not, particularly the early ones.

    Of course, that was one of the reasons why the Matter of Britain became so popular was that it was universally agreed upon as the cycle best suited to love.

    • I was talking about this with someone else this morning, who said that his theory was that all fiction was either romance, tragedy, or allegory, which last (he said) defined most fiction until Chaucer. I don’t know how true that is, as my reading in medieval literature is sporadic at best.

      • But… it is not difficult to think of works written before Chaucer that are not romance, tragedy nor allegory. How about the Epic of Gilgamesh? You can force it into any of the three boxes, but only by pushing hard. What about Beowulf?

        • Good question. I think it’s probably old-school romance, but then those definitions weren’t mine. I’ve read some of the biggies but I’m not anywhere near well versed enough in ancient to medieval tales to perceive patterns.

  2. One of my professors said in my freshman comp lit class that all fiction was either romance (confirming order) or tragedy (confirming entropy). That was when I first heard the term ‘romance’ as meaning other than books with pink covers.

    Since then I’ve wondered if labels can be so large as to become pretty meaningless. (I guess that would be more entropy.)

    • I suspect we all have our hierarchies, some adopted from teachers or reading friends or books. We are after all creatures of patterns, however we like to define them.

      My point is that ‘romance’ too often gets subsumed under other categories that perhaps sound more respectable because they don’t obviously have girl cooties.

  3. I’d call Selinko’s Desiree a romance in every sense of the word. Selinko paints Bernadotte in glowing colors, representing him a fearless upholder of republican ideas when the historical record is a lot more complicated. Many of his contemporaries complain about his ambitions, his holding back at battles–though really, who’d blame him for that–and for having a swathe of mistresses all over Europe.

    For that matter, Desiree was apparently not backward in that department either, but it was a strange (and some could say romantic) time, when a silk merchant’s daughter could find herself queen of a country whose language she had never spoken a word of, and her sister another queen. What’s more, the Bernadottes are the only ones who kept their thrones after Napoleon’s ructions, but then Bernadotte was invited to his throne. Probably the most romantic aspect of their real story is that his and Desiree’s son married Josephine’s granddaughter.

    • I can cut Selinko some slack for romanticizing Bernadotte heavily, considering she worked with the descendant who rescued a lot of people from the National Socialists during WW II.

      Another thing I noticed when reading memoirs from the real figures of the time, because pretty much all of them penned their memoirs, and that is they romanticized their own stories with buckets of gloss. Laure Junot’s memoir is really fascinating, though you have to take some of her own justifications with quantum amounts of salt–like how she somehow manages to make it seem like she was forever young over those decades, and though she hints at Junot’s straying from their marriage, she is tight-lipped about her own fling with Metternich, among others.

      I wonder if getting at more realistic sources was tough for Selinko, especially given the state of Europe when she was writing her novel, and so she took these memoirists at their own word. Anyway, I agree that it’s a romance, and I think it still works as a romance, all these years after my first reading, when I wasn’t much older than Desiree was at the outset of the novel.

  4. The definition of “romance” in medieval times was not that of the romance novel. Even still in Scott’s time, he called his books often romances, but he didn’t mean what it soon came to mean. It was already changing in some senses, such as The Romance of the Forest, which is the novel that Harriet wanted the farmer to read. That he hadn’t was supposed to mean, in her mind, that he didn’t care for her. Emma, of course, knows what paltry stuff is the Romance of the Forest.

    Calling novels in English novels in the first place was saying that this was a new arrival on the stage of literature.

    This is pretty basic stuff for even an undergrad English major, spoken of in sophomore survey courses. Or at least it used to be. Things have changed so much and I haven’t had much contact with undergrad in the last decades.

  5. First of all, happy Passover!

    To the matter at hand, I think there’s a lot of truth in what you write. Many writings are romances, even if people don’t realize it. And I think that’s a very natural thing. Throughout most of human history (I think only that in the past few years this has begun to change), an eternal pairing has been the ideal, and often the norm. That is, one is expected to meet someone, fall in love with them, marry and love with them (in sickness and in health, etc). The fact is, many things become romances once looked at from that angle. Take The Illiad – while that is very much not its focus, once can see it as basically Menelaus’s attempt to win back his love, Helen (or as Paris’s attempt to keep his love Helen). For that matter, for a more modern comparison, take Lord of the Rings: Tolkien, in The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, has Elrond state that Aragorn will only wed Arwen once he is King of both Gondor and Arnor. If we look at the entire story from Aragorn’s point of view, might it have not been an epic quest to defeat evil, but rather a quest to prove himself worthy of his love?

    The key then (or so I think) is what the emphasis is on. In Lord of the Rings, the emphasis is clearly not on Aragorn’s quest to become King, and in The Illiad, Menelaus regaining Helen is clearly not the point either (rather, it is the destruction of Troy and of human life and heroics in general). In some novels, the romance is hidden deeply in the background, and so, they are not romances, nor are they even perceived as romances. But in others, even though they do not seem to be the focus (and your example of Selinko’s Desiree is an excellent one, wherein the focus appears to be the historical happenings and how they affect Desiree), the romance is a driving force, often present, often driving happenings and even the plot itself.

    I think an even greater example of this is my favorite historical novel, Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons. While primarily a historical novel about the Princedom of Gwynedd during the reign of Llewellyn ab Iorwerth, (Llewellyn II Fawr), a constant presence in it is the romance between Joan of Wales, King John’s bastard daughter, and Llewellyn, the Prince of Gwynedd. It colors the historical happenings vividly, showing the personal effect they had, and at the same time, it can even drive the plot at times.

    In short: given the strength and prevalence of the force of romance in our world, I find it very natural that even stories not intended to be romances can be read as such.

  6. I enjoyed reading the post and the comments. I agree that it’s only recently that romance only implies a love story. Previously it meant a fictional adventure, but also we humans do love love, so there’s that.

    • Yes, fictional adventure with high heroism was the “romance” of my choice when I was an adolescent. I didn’t mind if a love story came into it, but I didn’t miss it if it didn’t.

      I credit Rachel for getting me to see how pleasant love-story romances could be, but I think the reason I like hers so much is because they have such a large component of adventure in them, too. Plus humor. But I do like the personal interactions, as well, and I gathered from her books, and from what you’ve written here at BVC and elsewhere, that that’s the main draw of love-story romances.

      • There are audiences for all flavors of romance. I happen to love the humor plus action. Some like grim action, with the couple bickering constantly, though that is a turnoff for me. Some like no humor whatsoever, rather, long descriptions of emotions. There is the comedy of manners romance with subtle interactions and no sex, and then the romances where the bed springs are squeaking through most chapters.

  7. I’m intrigued by your description of the the Camilla Monk stories, but I’ve got a question. Her website describes her as an author of “ultra-violent chick lit.” You know me, Sherwood. A big wussy. How violent are we talking? Do women and children get piled on the narrative bonfire like kindling? Do her characters hurt animals? Is there a lot of cruelty?

  8. Then there are the Icelandic Sagas -medieval westerns (Vikings and Skrellings)….
    My medieval lit proff told us to pay particular attention to the death speaches. My favorite was one character who was fatally wounded assaulting the hero’s house who was asked if the hero was there and replied ‘ ‘don’t know but his axe was” and then he died’!

  9. Thank you for the plug!

    As an romance reader dissecting romance tropes (and actually reading other genres), I agree that the semantic evolution from “Roman/Romance” in the medieval sense of the word, to today’s classification system did not benefit to the broad genre we nowadays call romance.
    I often get a little depressed when I see how much romance authors limit themselves, believing that readers expect exclusively a given set of tropes, and a standard structure.

    I personally don’t care much for genres, and I think writers should be unafraid to mix them, and fight so that publishers will accept that. So you like bodice rippers and purple prose, but you also want steam punk, intrigue and paranormal? You can have that: Gail Carriger pulled it off wonderfully with the Soulless series (title resemblance is unintentional!). Ruth Downie said in an interview that she started her Medicus series as an entry for a romance contest. Six books later, she’s a heavyweight of historical Roman detective fiction, and I can’t get enough of the understated yet constantly evolving relationship between her two main characters.

    In that regard, I like the broad definition of romance Mandy Dev mentioned, as something confirming order. The artistic, exaggerated and idealized description of a journey toward the resolution of one or several conflicts. And it’s no surprise that romantic or sexual love often find itself among those, as it is one of our species’ primary concerns! 😉