Monday, January 15, 2007


As Pamela Regis observes,
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. Ironically, it is this universal feature of the romance novel that elicits the fiercest condemnation from its critics. The marriage, they claim, enslaves the heroine, and, by extension, the reader. (Regis 2003: 9)
I think the happy ending in romance no longer automatically implies marriage, but can include what one might term 'marriage equivalents', and this reflects changing social mores, with increased co-habitation among both straight and gay couples, as well as legal equivalents to marriage such as civil partnerships for homosexual couples. It's not as though the genre and its predecessor's portrayals of marriage were ever static: marriage and ideas about marriage have changed over time, and this has been reflected in literature. As Regis says,
looking at the older books, beginning with Richardson's Pamela [...] a reader can see the shift in motives for marriage--from dynastic (marrying out of duty, for reasons of family, property, and so forth) to companionate (marrying for love). Most if not all of contemporary romance novels simply assume that companionate union is the only, best reason for pairing off.
And, although in the past marriage was intended for 'the procreation of children', nowadays this may not be the case since couples may choose to remain childless/child-free. Meanwhile, among those who do not, many
married couples now see children as an obstacle to their marital happiness. According to one recent review of over 90 studies of marital satisfaction, married parents report lower quality relationships than married couples without children.[..] Yet this does not mean that younger Americans are rejecting parenthood altogether. Most Americans are, or will become, parents. (Whitehead and Popenoe, 2006)
Regarding divorce, in the UK,
For many couples, obtaining a divorce has never been easier. The old-fashioned concept of establishing that one party is at fault has been consigned to history and the important fact to establish now is that the relationship has "irretrievably broken down".
and similar developments have taken place around the world, alongside the ending of the stigma previously attached to divorce.

In this context, it seems likely that modern romances may take a variety of different approaches to marriage, depending on the opinions and experiences of the author as well as factors such as the time-period and location in which the novel is set.

For many individuals modern marriage is something to aspire to, and they set very high standards of what they expect both from marriage itself and from their marriage partner:
Young adults today are searching for a deep emotional and spiritual connection with one person for life. At the same time, the bases for marriage as a religious, economic or parental partnership are receding in importance for many men and women in their twenties. [...] An overwhelming majority (94%) of never-married singles agree that "when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost." (Whitehead and Popenoe, 2001)
I wonder if this aspiration for, and view of, marriage lies behind the portrayal of soul-mate relationships in paranormal romances such as Christine Feehan's Carpathians and their 'lifemates', Robin D. Owens' HeartMates, and many other romances in which paranormal creatures feel a particular link to only one individual, to whom they become bound for life.

Back in the real world, however, women may still feel that they must behave in particular ways if they are to optimise their chances of finding a spouse. In Crusie's Bet Me, Min's mother is focussed on making Min acceptable to a man (both in order to catch a husband and to keep him after marriage), though her concern is predominantly with Min's physical appearance rather than her behaviour:
“I’m worried for you,” her mother was saying. “[...] I can’t stand it if you’re hurt.”
[...] “I just don’t want you hurt,” Nanette said, and Min thought she heard her voice shake. “I want you married to a good man who will appreciate you for how wonderful you are and not leave you because you’re overweight.” [...]
“Marriage is hard, Min,” Nanette was saying. ‘There are a million reasons for them to cheat and leave, so you have to work at it all the time. You have to look good all the time. Men are very visual. If they see something better -” [...] “No matter how hard you work, there’s always somebody younger, somebody better,” Nanette said, her voice trembling. (2004: 116-117)
She also advises Min not to use her 'loud voice' (2004: 69). Min keeps her loud voice, takes up eating carbs and butter and finds true love with Cal. What Crusie's re-writing of the Cinderella fairytale suggests is that there are far too many women out there trying to force themselves physically, emotionally and intellectually, into a corset (Min's mother has picked one out of her that is several sizes too small). But, as she's not an ugly sister, she doesn't need to squeeze herself into shoes that are too small: her glass slippers fit her perfectly.*

It's not just their bodies and personalities which women have been told to suppress in order to be marriageable, for example:
In Backlash, Susan Faludi revealed the stealth strategy of the right: to prove that the rights women gained for themselves through the feminist movement are causing their lives to fall apart. Among other things, she recalled a famous 1986 Newsweek story that said a single woman in her mid-thirties with delusions of meeting a partner ought to be very frightened. It seems that women were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married after the age of thirty-five. Faludi discovered that the story was no more than "a parable masquerading as a numbers report." In fact, it was an offhand remark made by a reporter, which was then taken seriously by a stringer in New York, who spun it into Spinstergate for Newsweek. (Baumgardner & Richards 2000: 103-104)
As reported at Salon in 2006:
Twenty years later, Newsweek is finally eating crow -- and practically serving wedding cake. "Months [after 'The Marriage Crunch' ran], other demographers came out with new estimates suggesting a 40-year-old woman really had a 23 percent chance of marrying. Today, some researchers put the odds at more than 40 percent," reads the new article, which also sputters an aside that that "terrorist" thing -- the "terrorist" thing that "quickly became entrenched in pop culture" (Oops! Our bad!) -- "wasn't actually true."
A recent item in Forbes Magazine is perhaps a sign of how far we've come (and how far we still have to go). On the 22nd of August 2006 an article was published by editor Michael Noer, in which he proclaimed:
Guys: a word of advice. Marry pretty women or ugly ones. Short ones or tall ones. Blondes or brunettes. Just, whatever you do, don't marry a woman with a career.

Why? Because if many social scientists are to be believed, you run a higher risk of having a rocky marriage. While everyone knows that marriage can be stressful, recent studies have found professional women are more likely to get divorced, more likely to cheat and less likely to have children.
The original article was very quickly noticed and critiqued, by many people including the Smart Bitches, and rapidly removed the original article and then put it back alongside another column putting the opposing view because, as they acknowledged, the original had 'provoked a heated response from both outside and inside our building. Elizabeth Corcoran, a member of our Silicon Valley bureau and principal author of the magazine's current cover story on robots, sent in this rebuttal', which was then printed alongside Noer's piece. Corcoran sensibly pointed out that it takes two people to make a marriage work:
The essence of a good marriage, it seems to me, is that both people have to learn to change and keep on adapting. Children bring tons of change. Mothers encounter it first during the nine months of pregnancy, starting with changing body dimensions. But fathers have to learn to adapt, too, by learning to help care for children, to take charge of new aspects of a household, to adapt as the mothers change.
Many modern romance heroines end up married by the end of the novel but not all do and there are relatively few whose main aim in life is to get married (and in the cases where it is, there are usually practical, financial reasons for this, particularly in historicals). In addition, romances are usually about a woman who is loved for who she is, not for who she's pretending to be. That's one of the positive messages about women and marriage that come out of romance.

On the other hand, as the Smart Bitches observed in their response to the Forbes article,
How many of you have noticed how contemporary romances oftentimes demonize the working life, specifically for women? I’ve noticed several stories about women on the verge of burnout who find fulfillment in a life filled with babies and domesticity
This is also something that was noted by Peter Darbyshire in his analysis of Harlequin's inspirational romances:
the unhappiness of the heroine in any given Love Inspired novel generally stems from resisting the wishes of the hero, who invariably demands she abandon her independent lifestyle and quit her job in order to become a full-time wife to him and a full-time mother to their children. The heroines inevitably do relent [...] Even in those few instances when female characters happily continue with what appears to be an independent lifestyle, they do so only with the tacit approval of male characters. (2002: 83)
Darbyshire was writing when this was a very new line, and he may therefore have reached conclusions about it which are not applicable to later novels in the line, but his comments and those of the Smart Bitches demonstrate that while some romances portray more modern attitudes towards marriage, others are much more traditional.
* If you scroll down this page you'll find Crusie's description of the cover of Bet Me, which includes the 'glass slippers'. For more on fairytale elements in Bet Me, see Maria M. Brown's notes on the novel.

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