This is really just a very quick note which I'm posting (a) because I thought it might be helpful to mention the older (and very different) genre of romance at some point, albeit I'm doing so very briefly here and (b) because it tied in with a discussion taking place elsewhere.
Hackett devotes the second chapter of her book to exploring whether or not there are any similarities between the modern romance genre and the romances of the English Renaissance. She begins, however, by describing the older romance genre, which
can require some acclimatisation from the modern reader, since it operates not by the familiar principles of the novel, but in the fantastical, non-naturalistic mode [...]. It tends to be concerned, for instance, with the adventures of elaborately named knights and ladies in exotic lands and/or in periods of distant mythologised history. [...] These fictions usually also involve supernatural interventions, amazing coincidences and twists of fate, amidst a general ambience of the marvellous and wondrous; and their style is highly rhetorical [...]. Renaissance romances can be long and highly digressive, often consisting of many strands of narrative; Philip Sidney's New Arcadia and Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene are obvious examples. These two romances underwent ongoing processes of revision and expansion by their authors and were left unfinished at their deaths, features which suggest open-endedness and the potentially infinite self-generation of the narrative. (1-2)Given this description, it is not surprising that in the second chapter Hackett concludes that there are few similarities with modern romances: "analogies between Renaissance romance and modern romantic fiction depend upon a characterisation of Renaissance romance as a popular genre of courtship narratives offering escapist pleasures to women readers; yet each one of the terms of this equation is debatable" (32).
While I was reading Hackett's book, Jessica posted about rape in the romance genre and looked at it from a variety of perspectives, including that of sexual fantasy. One issue that Hackett's book raised, and which struck me as potentially interesting to explore in this context, is that it suggested yet another perspective:
What we often find in Renaissance romances is both the repression of female agency and, beyond this, the infliction of extreme torments upon female victims. [...] In all these episodes the infliction of pain or humiliation on a female body is dwelt upon in detail, with fascination, or even with relish. Violence and degradation serve either as a punishment of female characters who are transgressively dominant and sexual, [...] or as a test of heroines who prove their virtue through passive stoicism and noble self-denial. (28)and
Rather than imposing stereotypical modern feminist definitions of heroism we need to reconstruct iconographies of martyrdom and sanctity which have become relatively alien to us [...]. In mediaeval literature, female saints and courtly-love mistresses were frequently addressed in virtually indistinguishable terms, while female saints’ lives recorded the bodily ordeals of virgin martyrs in ways which strikingly deployed potentially erotic material in the cause of holiness. [...] In Renaissance romances [...] heroines often adopt the behaviour of saints in the cause of love. An idea of ‘erotic sainthood’ might be a useful way of understanding the forms of female heroism found in these fictions, and the nature of their appeal to women. (32)I suspect that although the "iconographies of martyrdom and sanctity" may have become "relatively alien to us," the eroticised martyr-heroine may still be with us, in a modified form. According to Rachel Anderson, writing about the beginning of the modern romance genre, "The ideals of most of the early romantic novelists were based loosely on Christianity. [...] But the majority of today's romantic novelists are far less specific about the motivating ideals behind their work" (275). Anderson was writing in 1974, so her study is hardly up-to-date, but nonetheless, as I've discussed before, there remains a very strong spiritual element in the genre. Looked at from this perspective, perhaps it's only to be expected that the genre might contain some martyr-like heroines who, though they lose their virginity to the sinner-heroes and/or are raped by them, can be thought of as ultimately triumphing over their seducers or rapists by redeeming them.
Jessica also wrote a review of one romance with a rapist hero in which she stated that "Great writers can make us believe in unbelievable things." I'd suggest that hagiographies can also make many people believe in miracles which they would dismiss as unbelievable were they to occur in other contexts.
Janine's response encapsulates why such romances may be felt by some readers to be positive narratives: "That Gaffney was able to begin the reader’s journey in such a dark place and then bring us out into the light is a lot of what makes the books so uplifting to me as well as so incredibly romantic." Are there any parallels to be found with the "uplifting" emotions that may be experienced by readers of narratives about female martyr saints as the focus shifts away from the torments inflicted upon their bodies by abusive, powerful men and towards a conclusion in which the souls of the martyrs are taken up into the light of Heaven?
- Anderson, Rachel. The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-literature of Love. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974.
- Hackett, Helen. Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance. Cambridge: UP, 2000. A description, and a pdf of the first ten pages of Hackett's Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance are available from the University of Cambridge Press's website.