Friday, June 27, 2008

Society Defined

Pamela Regis has written that "Near the beginning of the [romance] novel, the society that the heroine and hero will confront in their courtship is defined for the reader. This society is in some way flawed; it may be incomplete, superannuated, or corrupt" (31). This impression of a flawed society is changed by the end of the novel:
In a scene or scenes the promised wedding is depicted, or some other celebration of the new community is staged, such as a dance or a fete. The emphasis here is on inclusion, and this scene is promised in every romance, even if it is not dramatized. Society has reconstituted itself around the new couple(s) and the community comes together to celebrate this. (38)
Of course, one of the flaws in society may be that it expects people to pair up as "heroine and hero," female with male. What happens to those who are rejected by their families because they can't? One hopes they'd find a new community, a new "family," as supportive as the one depicted in Ann Somerville's Means of Support (Chapter 1 and Chapter 2).

Somerville's fantasy/speculative fiction story Slipping Under further explores the connections between the individual and the rest of society and reaffirms the importance of love and human contact in a world which, in its busyness and increasing use of the internet and telephone, can leave individuals feeling isolated, anonymous, unknown. Being "in the closet" (or being rejected by one's family for coming out of it) doesn't help to foster feelings of connectedness either. The fact that this is fantasy/speculative fiction enables Somerville to explore this theme in a way that I found very powerful, because it makes real what could, in a contemporary romance, never go further than a metaphor. I don't want to say more because I don't want to give any spoilers, but maybe we can discuss it further after people have read the story, which is available for free here.

Ann gives a warning on her webpage that
The stories on this site are intended for mature audiences. They will include, from time to time, some sexually explicit scenes between couples of various genders within the context of longer stories, and address adult issues. There may also be occasional descriptions of explicit violence. Please don't click on any link on this site if you are underage, or likely to be disturbed by this kind of content, or stories with mature themes of any kind.
She has a lot of free stories there, but the ones I've chosen to highlight here don't contain "explicit violence."

  • Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.
The illustration can be seen in more detail at Wikipedia where it is described as a "Half-section of the Chinese painting Night Revels of Han Xizai, handscroll, ink and colors on silk, 28.7 x 335.5 cm. Original by Gu Hongzhong (10th century), 12th century remake of the Song Dynasty." Another Wikipedia entry observes that "the painting, which is a masterpiece of the era's artwork, portrays servants, musicians, monks, children, guests, hosts all in a single societal environment, serves as an in-depth look into 10th-century Chinese social structure."

Friday, June 20, 2008

Open Not the Door

Katrina Britt's Open Not the Door (1978) might also be titled "open not the pages unless you don't mind reading some rather overt moralising, traditional ideas about femininity and some nationalist stereotypes".

Here's a statement from Laraine, the heroine of the novel, on the issue of cohabitation: "lots of people do appear to be living together if you believe the press, but there are many more who are decent and clean-living, and I happen to be one of them" (43).

"Clean-living" young women, it is further revealed, take an immense interest in feminine undergarments (unlike the non-clean-living young women, who it is implied may even dispense with night-wear altogether, or at very least show little interest in it!):
Margaret [...] signalled Laraine to follow her to a chintz-covered chest serving as a seat. Inside was the kind of cobwebby negligé a girl dreams about, frothy silk and lace with ribbons, all delicately made.
Laraine breathed in the delicate scent of pot-pourri as the garments were revealed between layers of tissue paper.
'They're gorgeous!' she cried. 'Thanks for showing them to me.'
Margaret replaced each garment almost reverently. 'I think every girl should have beautiful things to wear on her honeymoon. A pity that girls today don't seem to think much beyond a nightdress, and not always that. They miss such a lot by not being so essentially feminine.' (116)
Charles, who's the type of hero who, when angry, is prone to forcing the heroine's "lips to the will of his. [...] He was all cruel strength, punishing lips, and bone-cracking arms whipped tightly around her. When he released her, Laraine was like one who had been shocked out of her senses, pain and ecstasy together. Her bruised lips trembled at the thought" (154-55) eventually describes Laraine as
everything I'd looked for in a woman, demure, feminine, good company, with your lovely eyes filled with compassion for a poor little hedgehog and a girl in a wheelchair. I loved your sense of humour, your courage, your understanding and tolerance of human frailty. (186)
So there you go. Now you know what you have to do if you want to be a truly "feminine", "clean-living" woman.

Another aspect of the novel which I noticed, and which I thought I'd mention is the way in which particular national characteristics (which one might well term "national stereotypes") are presented.

Laraine, on arriving in Scotland looks around her: "She was imagining a land peopled by a fierce army of Borderers, big handsome horsemen, proud and independent, men who had inspired Walter Scott to immortalise them in his Waverley novels" (17). Charles's statement on the matter of the national character is that:
We Scots might descend from a savage race of Borderers, but we do now manage to live in a civilised manner. The traditions of the past are still dormant within us and we're a fiercely independent and proud race. [...] However, we respect and love our women, our land and our heritage. (37)
Laraine comes to the conclusion that
The world that Charles moved in was far different from her own. His was a world of wild Border country where old beliefs still existed from ancestors which made her own look pale in comparison [...]. They had carried the stamp of a fierce proud race, and Charles was no exception. (110)
There's also a brief description of an Italian doctor, which gives Britt the opportunity to generalise about the appearance of Italians: "Of medium height, with sleek black hair and liquid dark eyes gleaming [...] Dottore Padrilli was handsome with the beautiful bone structure of face often to be seen among the Italians" (175).

However complimentary they may be, such descriptions of individuals (or groups of individuals) which refer to their nationality as though this in itself ensures physical and/or emotional homogeneity are problematic. In the nineteenth century "a series of authors divided Europe's population into discrete and homogeneous national groups on the basis of sexual characteristics. These pseudo-objective taxonomies reflect the arbitrary figments of nationalist fantasy" (Maxwell 266). Unlike Britt's romances (and, in fact, many other romances which describe the exotic attractions of the foreign hero), many of these nineteenth-century male writers were particularly interested in describing female beauties and
They examined "specimens" for unique "characteristics"; botanical metaphors were frequent. An 1881 article in Leipzig's Illustrierte Zeitung, for example, discussed "the unique specialties of female local flora" in an article on Vienna's "Female Types." A German fashion magazine similarly wrote that Spanish women "grow and bloom in the fertile soil of Iberia, without troubles, without culture, like the flowers and fruits of this blessed land." Pseudoscientific authors suggested that readers, too, could learn to classify women by nationality, just as they might learn how to classify various shrubs or beetles. (Maxwell 268)
This pseudoscience did not restrict itself to outlining the physical characteristics of women along national lines. Personality as well as appearance were thought to be determined by nationality:
Jakob Ignjatović, a Serbian lawyer who briefly sat in the Hungarian parliament [in his] 1865 essay "The Serb and His Poetry" [which] appeared in the Slavisches Centrallblatt, a German-language newspaper published in Saxony. Ignjatović argued that [...]:
In every people [...] feminine beauty has a particular character. The German woman is characterized through her sky blue eye, her golden-yellow hair, the tenderness of her whole being, and her soft heart;—the Greek woman by her regular facial features, her fiery eyes, her proportional figure, and the lively expression of her heart;—the Italian by her beautiful oval face, her sly eyes, her adorable voice, and the lightness of her movements;—the Englishwoman by her friendly expression, the fullness of her developed body, and her worthy figure;—the Frenchwoman by her animated complexion, the loving expression of her face, and her noble bearing;—the Hungarian by the purity of her complexion, the Caucasian, almond-shaped eyes, trustfulness, and the expression of openness;—the Arabian her exceptionally beautiful deep, dark complexion, the whiteness of her teeth, the bold gaze and the masculine, almost angry features on her face.
All women are beautiful, but the character of their beauty depends on their nationality. This text powerfully illustrates how readily pseudoscientists ignored obvious facts: Ignjatović knew that not all German women have "golden-yellow" hair nor all Hungarian women good complexions.(Maxwell 277-78)
One might also observe that not all Englishwomen have friendly expressions, soft hearts are not solely to be found among German women and so on.1 Researchers from the University of Manchester's PUG (Public Understanding of Genetics) project observed in a recent leaflet that
Race, ethnicity, nationality are overlapping ways of thinking about how humans are different from and the same as each other. [...] Racial thinking often uses ideas of “natural” bodily substances - for example, “blood” - that are supposedly shared by people of similar geographical origin and transmitted through descent and that, in this way of thinking, shape both physical appearance and culture. Today, racial thinking is scientifically seen as invalid (1-2)
Genetics sees all humans as the same because, as a species, our common evolutionary origin in Africa means that we all share more than 99% of our genetic material. Genetics also sees humans as different because there are variations in genetic make-up. Although there is still some debate on the matter, most geneticists now think that these variations do not correspond to what people think of as racial, ethnic or national categories. There is no clear genetic basis for racial, ethnic or national thinking. (2-3)
I wonder when we'll see the door close on racial stereotypes (the Scottish barbarian, the arrogant, domineering Spanish/Italian/Greek macho hero, the noble Native American savage) in the romance genre.
  • Britt, Katrina. Open Not the Door. London: Mills & Boon, 1978.
  • Maxwell, Alexander. "Nationalizing Sexuality: Sexual Stereotypes in the Habsburg Empire." Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.3 (2005): 266-290.

1 Here's some more from Ignjatović, describing the Serbian woman:
She does not have the lightness and enchantingness of the Italian;—nor the docility of expression and loving heart of the Frenchwoman;—nor the solid and solicitous sweetness of the Englishwoman;—nor the light-hearted trustfulness and openness of the Hungarian;—but she does have something of the self-respect and pride of the Spaniard. She has the most in common with the Arabian woman. . . . All these characteristic features unite in the Serbian woman to an expression of heroism, through which she distinguishes herself from the women of all other nations. (qtd. in Maxwell 279)
He also produced a description of men of various different nationalities:
Every nation [...] has its own characteristic beauty. The German is handsome because of his gold-colored hair and soft blue eyes, the Frenchman because of his ideals and friendly facial expressions, the Spaniard because of his proud eyes, the Arab his dark complexion. The Serb, by contrast, does not have a soft appearance: his eyes spew fire. For this reason, the costume of a warrior suits him. The sight of a Serb in a frock coat is almost comical. (qtd. in Maxwell 287)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Optional Romance Exam

Eric's written an end-of-term report on his romance fiction class.
Whatever the life-skills they learned or missed, students came away with more respect for the genre, and most had at least one author, sub-genre, or series they planned to read after graduation. This afternoon I’ll order the books for my next romance classes. Some new ones will join the mix: Gwyneth Bolton’s Sweet Sensation, Beth Pattillo’s Heavens to Betsy (my first in-class Inspy), and Devil’s Cub, by Georgette Heyer, comes back into print in August, just in time for the fall survey. While I get the next round of syllabi in order, you might have some fun with this: the optional final exam for my senior seminar. I gave it on Tuesday, and guess what? Nobody came! All too busy working on their papers, I guess.
If you'd like to take the exam, the questions (on Linda Howard's Mr. Perfect, Loretta Chase's Mr. Impossible, J. R. Ward's Dark Lover, Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm and Joey W. Hill’s Natural Law) are up, over at Romancing the Blog!

The picture isn't of Eric's students. It's from Wikipedia.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Connie Brockway and Colonialism

Over at Reader, I Married Him Elizabeth is analysing Connie Brockway's As You Desire.

There are excerpts of the novel here and here, and a variety of rave reviews here, here, here. I did manage to find one slightly more critical review, which can be found here.

Elizabeth's post isn't a review, it's "a close reading of Connie Brockway’s As You Desire focusing on anti-colonial and Orientalist tensions within the book." Elizabeth elaborates both on the ways in which
Orientalist and romance novel tropes will be set up and elaborated upon at great length. These tropes will then be revealed as moments of intensely parodistic humor and dispelled by the actions or words of the “real” characters. [...] Brockway deftly takes up Orientalist stories and refashions them with parodistic humor into a world where Egypt is normalized, England is romanticized, and the entire process of constructing the other is laid bare as a foolish and ultimately immature process. Yet there are also elements of the book that did not ring true for me, moments where Orientalist themes were embraced as well as mocked.
and she takes a closer look at the real historical context in which the novel is set and the extent to which this is (or isn't) reflected in the novel. For example
The increasingly urbanized, educated, and technologically proficient class of Egyptians and Turkish-Circassian elites who by 1890 were articulating powerful and complex desires for national sovereignty is largely absent from the text. The first woman’s periodical, al-Fatah, was published in Alexandria in 1892. Political journals had been printed and distributed within Egypt as early as the 1870s. These journals catered to the increasing portion of Egyptians who were literate, politically engaged, and self-consciously nationalist. Fierce debates over the social roles of religion, women, national identity, and modernization were unfolding in Cairo just as they were unfolding in other urban centers of the time: London, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, New York, Chicago… Cairo’s struggle to constitute an Egyptian form of modernity was vibrant, complex, and contemporary with European debates over the same issues.

Brockway conveys only a hint of this complexity.
Whether or not you've read the novel, I'd encourage you to go and read what Elizabeth has to say about it.

Friday, June 06, 2008

When is a Pearl Necklace not just a Pearl Necklace?

When a literary critic thinks about its symbolism, of course.

Sarah's over at Romancing the Blog, giving some details about the classes she recently taught as part of the North Carolina State University Encore! program. She spent some time analysing the symbolism of a scene in one romance, only to be told later, by the author of the novel, that no such symbolism had been intended.

Sarah observes that
Literary critics talk about the Intentional Fallacy. Wikipedia helpfully tells us that “W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in their essay ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (1946 rev. 1954)” wrote that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” Academics often ask where the meaning of a text resides: is it in the text itself, is it solely in the reader, or is it in the mingling of the two, the combination between how the reader, with her unique personal experiences, reads a text with its unique references and descriptions. If Claudia didn’t “mean” to construct a particular symbolic structure, does that make it any less valid when the reader’s experience is improved by believing that those symbolic structures are there? If the reader finds symbolism in a text, doesn’t that mean that it’s there, whether or not the author intended for it to be there?
I'm one of those who believes that "the meaning of a text resides [...] in the text itself." I believe (and yes, writing about belief in the context of textual analysis is making me feel like I belong to a branch of literary critics who resemble the Protestant Reformers in advocating a return "ad fontes") that the words of the text are the main source of evidence when a reader is trying to understand what that text means. So if, for example, a pearl necklace is mentioned, and all we are told in the text itself is that the heroine likes pearl necklaces, it's going to be more difficult to sustain an argument that the necklace has a particular symbolism. However it would make the critic's argument more convincing if she could show that the perceived symbolism helps to illuminate a particular theme in the work, or the characterisation.

That's one of the main reasons I prefer prose to poetry, by the way. There tends to be a much greater volume of words in a novel, which makes it easier to find larger quantities of evidence against which one can test one's hypothesis.

One may also place the text in its cultural and historical context in order to assess whether or not a particular interpretation is convincing. If a particular symbolism is extremely well known, it's more likely to have influenced the author e.g. if the author writes a scene in which a young woman is offered an apple by a snake, it would seem very likely that the scene alludes to the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Some cases are much less clear, and in yet others it may in fact be obvious that the symbolism or allusion could not possibly have been intended by the author. To give an extreme example, if a literary critic wants to believe that a medieval poet was thinking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer as he wrote a particular poem, that's the critic's prerogative, but it's not going to convince me and I'm not going to believe that the poem really contains symbolism which alludes to Buffy.

Thirdly, one can ask the author what she intended, or read what the author has written about her own work. This might be helpful in terms of proving that the author has, indeed, watched a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it's not so helpful in ruling out possible influences. Most authors seem to describe their process of writing as one which, particularly in a first draft, can be a bit mysterious (hence the talk about Muses and the subconscious). Regardless of what the author was consciously intending, she may have been influenced by her cultural context, the reading she's done in the past, the traditions of the genre in which she writes, etc.

Ultimately, I suppose, whether any of this matters depends on what we're trying to do when we analyse texts. Are we assuming that a text will be basically coherent (though it may include some elements which run counter to certain other elements) and there is one correct way to interpret it? If so, then it's not surprising we'd talk about "evidence." We're thinking of the critic as the literary equivalent of a detective, building up a case by organising the clues in order to find the pattern which makes sense of them and, finally, presenting them to the judge (the peer review process). As Sarah's observed, one may or may not believe that's the purpose of literary criticism or of reading.

If one believes that the process of reading is most valuable because of what it can do for the reader, and how it can illuminate the reader's life, or if one believes that "the meaning of a text resides [...] solely in the reader" then talk of evidence and authorial intention may become completely irrelevant.


The photo is of Margherita of Savoy, Queen of Italy, from Wikipedia. According to a website which has photos of her wearing many of her pearl necklaces
Queen Margherita’s passion for pearls became legendary and she would rarely be seen without some pearls of her enormous and most exquisite collection. One of her necklaces, with 280 pearls, came from Queen Maria Adelheid of Sardinia, born Archduchess of Austria, the late wife of her father-in-law, King Vittorio Emanuele II. It had been bought in Prague by Maria Adelheid’s brother, Archduke Leopold. Another and even more impressive necklace was actually formed by several necklaces given in four years by her husband, King Umberto, and was formed by 684 pearls!
Pizza Margherita is named after her:
In 1889, Rafaele Esposito of the Pizzeria di Pietro e Basta Cosi (now called Pizzeria Brandi) baked pizza especially for the visit of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita. To make the pizza a little more patriotic-looking, Esposito used red tomato sauce, white mozzarella cheese and green basil leaves as toppings.
So now I know the symbolism that's present in a Pizza Margherita!

Monday, June 02, 2008


This is a Call For People, rather than a Call For Papers. It is time for an academic society for the study of popular romance fiction, with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereunto, like a journal and conferences. So we have decided to start one! "We" being myself, Eric Selinger, and a few other people who are already interested in being involved.

The society will be called The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) and the journal will be an online, open-source journal called The Journal of Popular Romance Studies (JPRS).

So, we're looking for people who might be interested in helping us build these institutions. Do you want to get in on the ground floor? Do you already have experience in the hierarchy of an academic organization or with an academic journal that you'd love to share with us, even if you don't want to be involved in the day-to-day aspects of running either? Please let us know! For minimum involvement, for example, we're going to need people to act as peer reviewers for the journal, so please let us know your specific area of interest in romance novels (paranormals? inspirationals? Regencies? heroes? romances published in the 1950s?). For maximum involvement, we're going to need journal editors and IASPR board members. We especially need the input of people who might have done any of this before, so you can at least tell us what to avoid! :)

For now, the contact person for both the society and the journal is myself, Sarah Frantz. Comment here with a way to contact you and I'll email you post-haste. (Or you can contact me at my Gmail account, which is my full first and last names as one word.)

Let me know what you're interested in doing (A highly-valued affinity for numbers? You could be Treasurer! Technical Know-how? We need Web Gurus! Organization? We need a Membership Chairperson!). Or if you don't know specifically what you might be able to contribute, but are really interested in being a part of the process, let us know that, too! We promise, we'll find a use for you.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Dangerous Reading

In an article published last year and titled "Harm in reading romance novels?" one could read the following warning:
many romance novels are not as harmless as they look. In fact, some marriage therapists caution that women can become [...] dangerously unbalanced by these books’ entrancing but distorted messages. (Feldhahn)
Concerns about women's reading are nothing new. This week I've been reading Kate Flint's The Woman Reader 1837-1914. She suggests that in this period considerable effort was expended in attempting to answer the question "what moral, sexual, religious, ideological dangers may lie in a woman’s being absorbed by so preoccupying a pursuit?" (4). However, as she also notes, even in that period "the debate about what women should, and should not read, and how they read, was not a new one, nor has it disappeared" (16). According to Flint
Renaissance prescriptive remarks concerning woman's reading were remarkably close, in outline, to ones which were repeated during the next three centuries [...]. Whilst too great an acquaintance with light reading might lead her sexually astray, either in imagination or reality, it would also distract her from developing intellectually and spiritually. Edward Hake makes this point in A Touchestone for this time present (1574): "Eyther shee is altogither kept from exercises of good learning, and knowledge of good letters, or else she is so nouseled in amorous books, vaine stories and fonde trifeling fancies, that shee smelleth of naughtinesse even all hir lyfe after" (qtd. in Flint 23).
One can easily find modern equivalents of this moral condemnation of women's reading of "amorous books" which may ensure that the reader "smelleth of naughtinesse." Just recently one Christian former reader of romances wrote that
An editor casually described the genre's most sexually explicit fare as soft-core pornography. I was horrified. That remark put an entirely new spin on my romance addiction—and explained why these books were so difficult to put down. [...] Romance novels could have caused dissatisfaction with my husband; I knew of wives who compared their all-too-ordinary Mr. Steadys to the books' rich and handsome heroes. (Marvin)
It has often been suggested that women readers are particularly vulnerable, liable to be excessively influenced by fiction:
in an article of 1859 by the critic and moral crusader W. R. Greg, entitled ‘False Morality of Lady Novelists’. He states that:
novels constitute a principal part of the reading of women, who are always impressionable, in whom at all times the emotional element is more awake and more powerful than the critical, whose feelings are more easily aroused and whose estimates are more easily influenced than ours, while at the same time the correctness of their feelings and the justice of their estimates are matters of the most special and preeminent concern. (Flint 4)1
From a very different perspective, but nonetheless also seeking to shield women from writing which may damage their characters, we can turn to Julie Bindel. It wasn't that long ago that we analysed her article about Mills & Boon romances (in considerable detail). She claimed that romance was "propaganda [...]. I would go so far as to say it is misogynistic hate speech" and her main concern was that "such novels feed directly into some women's sense of themselves as lesser beings, as creatures desperate to be dominated."

Yet others have detected harmful elements in fiction, but felt that the reader could nonetheless benefit from if guided and supervised in her reading:
Mary Hays, for example, writing to a woman friend in 1793, advised her not to be too alarmed at her daughter’s predilection for novels and romances. More, Hays thinks, would be lost by forbidding these than by taking the opportunity to discuss the books with her, since this would damage the daughter’s confidence without correcting her taste. [...] Hays claims that ‘The love of the marvellous, or of extraordinary and unexpected coincidences, is natural to young minds, that have any degree of energy and fancy.’ To avoid risking the loss of these characteristics, a mother should read with her daughters, should converse with them about the merits of various authors, and should ‘accustom them to critical and literary discussions’. Eventually, they, like their mothers, should disapprove of anything that has ‘an improper and immoral tendency’. (Flint 30)
A modern equivalent can be found in the advice offered by Diana Mitchell, a ninth-grade teacher:
I decided I might instead learn to use these books in ways that can provoke thought and encourage readers to look closely at what these novels really say, especially about male and female roles. By helping students become conscious of such issues as the gender expectations shown in the books, I can help them think about their own values and expectations for males and females. [...] this questioning process may be slow, but, over a period of time, with gentle urging from the teacher, romance-series readers can learn to be more objective about what they read.

Thus, since many of our female students have a natural attraction to the romance series either as a way of finding solace in an increasingly demanding world or as a way to reassure themselves of happy endings, we as teachers need to use this interest as an opening instead of fighting the losing battle of warning students against reading them.
Greg was particularly worried about the effects of " 'light literature;' [...] this literature is effective by reason of its very lightness: it spreads, penetrates, and permeates, where weightier matter would lie merely on the outside of the mind" (144). It is true that for all that romance has often been described as "fluff," a sort of candy-floss for the brain, it does deal with a great many serious topics. Linda K. Christian-Smith, for example, wrote in 1990 that
woven throughout teen romance fiction’s saga of hearts and flowers is an accompanying discourse that a woman is incomplete without a man, that motherhood is women’s destiny, and that a woman’s rightful place is at home. These themes are part and parcel of the New Right’s political and cultural agenda regarding women, representing the conservative restoration of women to their “proper” place in society.(2)
Also commenting on the moral and ideological content of romance, though this time romances written for adults, Robin stated that she sees
love and relationships (especially marriage) as inherently political, because of the power negotiations involved. And because Romance is so particularly focused on the idealization of love and marriage (historically, at least, for the marriage part), I see it as intrinsically political, as well — active in creating different images of a social ideal.
and in the same comments thread RfP commented that
A lot of romances strike me as political, though I’m not always sure the author is aware of the strength of the subtext. In that respect it’s much like so many other issues in romances–some authors are mindful of it, some relatively unreflected, some put substantial effort into working through the issue.
Similarly, some readers are mindful of the subtexts, while some may not reflect on them much at all (though they may angrily reject a novel which appears to "preach" at them). It can be difficult to work out the precise relationship between a reader and the books she reads. To what extent is any woman reader influenced by what she reads, and how much do factors such as her own pre-existing attitudes, her social context, her individual personality etc affect both her interpretations of what she reads and the selections she makes when at the library or bookshop?

Furthermore, why is the female reader still of so much interest? It could be to do with the fact that, nowadays, on average women tend to read more fiction than men. Maybe, because I work on romance, which is a genre mostly written by women and mostly read by women, I've just not seen the studies which analyse the dangers of reading for men. But could it be that women are still seen as fundamentally different from men in how we read and respond to literature? Is it that we are considered more likely than men to absorb ideas about who we are and what we should be from our reading? Or is it that because women have traditionally had less power, even small changes in our attitudes are seen as posing a significant challenge to the status quo and so our reading of particular texts must, depending on the author's view, either be strongly encouraged or strongly discouraged?

And finally, isn't it interesting that the centuries-old tradition of concern about women readers seems to have focussed, in the present day, on women readers of romance? This is a genre which has been criticised by some for encouraging women to have overly sexual thoughts and become dissatisfied with their husbands, and yet has also been criticised by others for not making women dissatisfied enough with their husbands, gender roles etc. It would seem that any genre that's thought of as one written by women for women, and which deals with the issues of women's sexuality, aspirations and gender roles, is likely to remain controversial.2

1 It should be noted that Greg criticises a number of novels for not concluding happily but instead presenting the reader with "a picture of love abandoned and happiness trampled under foot in obedience to misty and crooked notions of what honour and dignity enjoin" (155).

2 As I've said before, I tend to stress the diversity, rather than any supposed homogeneity, within the genre and among its readers. If one accepts that such diversity exists, it becomes much more difficult to come to any definitive conclusions about whether the genre as a whole is harmful or beneficial to its readers.

The illustration is Robert Martineau's The Last Chapter (1863) and I found this copy via Wikimedia Commons. Flint describes this painting as one which depicts a woman
reading for escapist pleasures. She is unmistakably caught up in one of the fashionably controversial 'sensation novels'. As we watch her consuming the text avidly, by firelight, we conclude that the book has the power to keep her up and awake beyond the customary hour at which the house goes to bed. Her pose is testimony to the compulsive nature of these fictions: moreover, the lighting of the picture and the angle from which she is portrayed invest her with something of the melodramatic mystery and self-importance of the heroines about whom she reads. (3)
The text of Greg's article, along with a great many other Victorian primary texts on the topics of the "Condition of Women," "Empire" and "Science, Evolution, and Eugenics" are available from the University of Minnesota.