Dr. Martin Hipsky's Modernism and the Women's Popular Romance in Britain, 1885-1925, recently published by Ohio University Press, has been described as "a must-read rethink of modernism itself." I asked Marty if he'd like to visit Teach Me Tonight to tell us a bit more about his new book, and he agreed. I should note that although he describes it as a "study of the history of the modern romance novel," his focus on such an early period in the history of "the modern romance novel" does mean that some of the popular romances he studies (including Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan and Elinor Glyn's Three Weeks) would not be classified as romances according to the RWA definition, although many others would.
Ohio Wesleyan University
As a scholar of British and Irish literary modernism, I first became interested in the romance novel of the fin de siècle and early twentieth century when I was writing about the London avant-garde and Wyndham Lewis's journal Blast (1914-15). Lewis's fiery cultural manifestos (co-signed by Ezra Pound) featured the name of celebrity romance-writer Marie Corelli, whom they took to be a totem of Edwardian popular culture, and a sort of demotic figure for cultural tendencies that they, as a self-proclaimed vanguard, were rebelling against. I discovered that (as readers of this blog may know) Corelli had been publishing best-selling mystical romances since the mid-1880s, and in 1895, with her blockbuster romance The Sorrows of Satan, had sold the most copies of any novel in the history of Britain to that point.
So I read some of Corelli's romances, and she became the inspiration of a research project: to investigate the most successful romance novels written by women in the same years that witnessed the emergence of what we now call high modernist culture, and to consider the relationship -- as perceived then, but more importantly as legible now, with the benefit of historical hindsight -- between this ultra-popular mode and the experimental narratives of such canonical figures as Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence.
My study offers interpretations of eleven top-selling books, all women-authored romances, in the years around the turn of the British twentieth century. This set of romances includes works by Mary Ward ("Mrs. Humphry Ward"), Marie Corelli, Emma Orczy, Elinor Glyn, Florence Barclay, Victoria Cross, Ethel Dell, and E. M. Hull. For a list of the eleven romances I have chosen as my primary interpretive focus (a limited selection, as most of these eight writers published a number of romances), you can look at the Works Cited list below.
Although I note the occasional condescension that the modernist writers, predictably enough, expressed toward these women romance-writers, that is not the cultural dynamic of interest here. Rather, I argue that certain "high" modernist works, for all their intellectual challenges, nonetheless evinced a powerful force of affect in parallel with the affective appeal popular romances by women. While the parallel was not conscious on either side of the romance/modernism divide, what was conscious on the part of the two sets of writers, in different ways, was the project of creative reaction against the literary realism that was so esteemed by the (mostly male) cultural arbiters of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. This parallel, I argue, has powerful implications about the unfulfilling experience of living amid an often alienating and isolating modernity.
Modernism and the Women’s Popular Romance in Britain, then, is not primarily a celebration of either select high modernist works, or select romance novels of the late-Victorian-to-modernist period. It is instead an attempt to explain the unprecedented (and often forgotten) appeal of that era’s secular, women-authored romance. As I say in the preface to the study, between 1885 and 1925 these romances loomed as a series of pinnacles along the highest plateau of popular British (in most cases, also North American, and indeed global anglophone) reading. For this socio-historical reason and many others (including the pleasures of discovery that these romances can still bring to their readers), I believe that this group of romances constitutes a very important part of recent anglophone literary-cultural history. I hope that the book makes some contribution to our understanding of the vast phenomenon of the woman-authored romance reading of our not-too-distant past.
Barclay, Florence. The Rosary. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1909.
Corelli, Marie. Innocent: Her Fancy and His Fact. New York: A. L. Burton Company, 1914.
_____. The Sorrows of Satan . Ed. by Peter Keating. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
_____. The Treasure of Heaven.. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1906.
Cross, Victoria [Vivian Cory]. Anna Lombard. New York: Kensington Press, 1901.
Dell, Ethel. The Way of an Eagle . London: Virago, 1996.
Glyn, Elinor. Three Weeks. London: Duckworth, 1907.
Hull, E. M. The Sheik . Philadelphia: Pine Street Press, 2001.
Orczy, Baroness [Emmuska]. The Scarlet Pimpernel  “Popular Edition.” London: Greening and Co., 1909.
Ward, Mary Augusta. Lady Rose’s Daughter. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1903.
_____. Robert Elsmere . Edited by Clyde de L. Ryals. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.