Teaching the Romance

Tomorrow – or rather, later today – the teaching staff of the British Studies at Mainz will discuss the programme for next winter. (Head-spin alarm! After all, we haven’t even yet finished our current winter semester!!!) After consulting Eric Selinger’s course materials, leafing through Pamela Regis’s “A Natural History of the Romance Novel,” and staring at the romance shelves in my mini-library for long, long minutes, I’ve decided I’ll propose to teach a course on “Reading the Romance.” So far I’ve been reluctant to do so, because I’ve made the experience that teaching something you love can end in disaster. (“Fantastic Parodies,” anybody?) (Though, truth to be told, the Thackeray course was actually worse as most of my students refused to do the reading assignments. O joy, what fun that was!) But teaching another course “Introduction to British Drama” would be a bit boring, I expect, hence the decision for “Reading the Romance.”

7 thoughts on “Teaching the Romance

  1. Laura Vivanco

    I’m bubbling over with questions now, of course, but I’ll limit myself to two:

    How likely is it that the rest of the department will agree that this is a worthwhile course to teach?

    Which books would you put on the syllabus?

  2. Sandra Schwab

    How likely is it that the rest of the department will agree that this is a worthwhile course to teach?

    Very likely, I hope! After all, by next winter I’ll have taught five “serious” courses in a row (Medieval Literature, Tennyson, Thackeray, Gaskell, Introduction to British Drama from the Middle Ages to the REstoration), so I guess I can do something non-canoncial again. 🙂

    Which books would you put on the syllabus?

    My syllabus would look something like this:

    1 INTRO

    theory (Radway, Flesch, Regis)

    Austen, Pride & Prejudice
    one of Heyer’s novels
    oral presentation on Bridget Jones

    one gothic novel
    oral presentation on Jane Eyre
    Holt, Mistress of Mellyn

    one novel by Mary Stewart

    Lucy Gordon’s The Italian’s Wife by Sunset



    Coming up with a list of texts is a bit tricky because I can’t include any US American authors. (Canadians and Australians are fine, though.) But I’ve been thinking about covering important American texts (like The Flame and the Flower) with oral presentations.

  3. Laura Vivanco

    E. M. Hull’s The Sheik is a romance by a British author, and it’s got the “hero rapes heroine” plot in it. Would that do instead of the Woodiwiss? It’s definitely very famous, since it was turned into a film featuring Rudolph Valentino. It’s been reprinted a few times, including editions by Virago, and there’s secondary material written about it, e.g. this article by Susan L. Blake.

    As for Woodiwiss, I suspect that she perhaps didn’t have as much impact on romantic fiction in the UK as she did on the romance genre in the US. Certainly I’d never heard of her before I started reading US romance boards/blogs, and I can’t recall seeing her books in the library or in second-hand shops. I do know that they were published in the UK, but I don’t know how many copies were sold.

    It’s interesting how big the differences seem to be, actually, between the US and the UK with regards to romantic fiction/romance (and that distinction in itself is indicative of an important difference between the two markets).

    If you have a chance to read Rachel Anderson and Mary Cadogan’s books about the history of popular romantic fiction, they mainly focus on the British tradition.

    Radway’s theory that romance readers are looking for nurturance isn’t one that convinces me, at all. In addition, although I’m no historian of the genre, she does mention the way that her study fits into a trend in studies of American popular culture. I’m not sure to what extent one can extrapolate from the preferences of the American readers she studied, to those of UK readers in the same period. It’s also worth bearing in mind that they were American readers who didn’t read Harlequins, and I’m sure that means they can’t have been representative of all US romance readers either, since Harlequin was doing pretty well and lots of people must therefore have been buying their books.

    Anyway, since I’m fairly sure that M&Bs form the majority of the pure “romance” novels published in the UK, it makes me wonder how applicable her findings would have been in the UK, where “single titles” were probably less likely to have been “pure romance.” I think that’s likely because of the popularity of romantic fiction like Catherine Cookson’s novels or Winston Graham’s Poldark series which are more saga-ish than pure “romance.” Jilly Cooper had her first novel published in 1975, and I’m sure she’s been a big name in UK romantic fiction. Anyway, my impression is that some authors who are very “big” in one country can actually be much less well known in the other. M.M. Kaye‘s The Far Pavilions is another example. It’s mentioned on a recent list by the Guardian and was made into a TV series, but no-one’s ever referred to it on the US romance boards I’ve visited.

  4. Sandra Schwab

    Laura, Radway will be my example for early (feminist) research on romance. Like you, I’m not convinced by Radway’s theories. Moreover, I think the way she has done her questionnaire study and arrived at her findings is sloppy, to say the least.

    Now that I’ve found out that “The Sheik” is still in print, I will definitely look into it (see my most recent post). Thanks for the tip about Anderson’s and Cadogan’s books! Will try to find these, too.

  5. Laura Vivanco

    The Cadogan is what it says it is, i.e. an “exuberant” look at romance fiction, so it’s not pretending to be deeply academic. That said, it does go through a lot of different sub-genres and I think it gives a fairly good general overview. When I looked at Abebooks there was one copy available for £7.49. There was also a copy of the Anderson available for only £4. It’s interesting partly because of the author’s mixed feelings of scorn and reluctant affection for romantic fiction but she also goes into quite a lot of detail about authors who are pretty much unknown nowadays. Postage always makes things more expensive, of course, but still…

    [Am I doing a good job of tempting you? ;-)]

  6. Laura Vivanco

    Oh, and since you’re trying to give an overview of “romantic fiction” rather than the more narrowly defined romance genre, these essays might possibly also be of interest:

    Fox, Pamela, 1994. ‘The “Revolt of the Gentle”: Romance and the Politics of Resistance in Working-Class Women’s Writing’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 27.2: 140-160.

    Light, Alison, 1984. ‘Returning to Manderley – Romance Fiction, Female Sexuality and Class’, Feminist Review, 16: 7-25.

    Light, Alison, 1989. ‘ “Young Bess”: Historical Novels and Growing up’, Feminist Review, 33, (Autumn, 1989): 57-71.

  7. azteclady

    Nothing scholarly to add, but I bounced happily at the mentions of E.M. Hull’s The Sheik (my very first romance, at the tender age of 11–still have *that* copy, thanks much) and Graham’s Poldark series.

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