on 9 July 2016
I would ask any indignant defender of the 'anyone expressing criticisms of the genre or romantic novels or its defenders must be speaking from ignorance or doesn't understand the genre' school please to refrain, because I have read many romances, and sometimes, even write them.
Three stars, because I don’t believe in giving low star ratings because I disagree agree with a writer’s arguments. I don't normally write such scathing reviews, but this book's soft treatment of rapist heroes really dismayed me.
With this book, though, I was really tempted to give a low star rating, if only because the author falls over backwards to justify the heroine of ‘Pamela’ in her idiotic choice of marrying her one time would be rapist Mr B. In this, she makes the following astounding statement: - ‘The story can be called oppressive, I think, only if one believes that marriage is an institution so flawed that it cannot be good for a woman.’
Excuse me! What sort of an argument is this? (Steam bursts from my ears…) I can't dispute that Professor Regis does think that, but it's an illogical. The story can be called oppressive because it romanticizes the relationship between a would be rapist and his victim in the most distasteful way. The story can be called oppressive, because the heroine is wholly oppressed by Mr B both before he puts the relationship on a nominally respectable basis, and afterwards, when he controls her every behaviour.
Not only that, but Regis has unfortunately neglected her research. I have come across a letter quoted from Richardson in another work which totally disproves that Pamela in any way finds 'affective individualism' or 'companionate marriage' even if she does obtain, through that distasteful alliance, 'property rights'.
All right. I will return to that in a moment, and the quote from Samuel Richardson’s correspondence, which shows why even the author the arch patriarch Puritan Samuel Richardson disagreed with Ms Regis over that.
To go to the positive, which normally i put first, I did think the style was lucid and would be very helpful for someone not familiar wiih the classics.
On the book in general, the style is concise and makes for an easy read. It was writtten, of course, circa 1999, and so naturally seems dated. It was written before so many romance writers went on the offensive about the literary value of the romance novel. Therefore, if some of the arguments seem unoriginal now, then I assume that they were more so at the time. The structure is well thought out, too.
On the structure, the author outlines this at the beginning. There’s an bit on the critics and the romance novel, and Ms Regis considers that these criticisms didn’t have a broad enough base. Very possibly that is true; I do think, however, that the critics have generally had more experience of reading romance novels generally than might appear, as I think there are probably very few women in Western Europe or the US who haven’t read a few when they were growing up – whether they are prepared to admit it or not.
Anyway, leaving that aside as irrelevant here, Regis promises some thoroughgoing research – and then limits her own research, too. Lack of time, perhaps?
She argues that the feminist critics’ complaint that the Marriage as Happy Ending extinguishes the heroine’s freedom and confirms the values of patriarchy, is untrue because through making the marriage choice, the heroine in the notorious HEA in all romance novels finds independence, both emotional and monetary. In her choice of the hero, Regis inists that he heroine finds 'freedom'.
This freedom is in fact, never defined except as 'affective individualism' a rather pretentious and vague term.
She argues that regarding the feminist critics charge that in reading romances the reader is reconciled to patriarchy through the mechanism of the fantasy HEA, that the romance novel isn’t powerful enough to ‘relegate woman to patriarchy and marriage’ because readers are free to skip text, reject it, etc.
If so, then surely it is not powerful enough either to serve the function which she ascribes to it – to encourage women to think in terms of emotional fulfillment, choice and independence, as she argues later on, either. There's an strong contradiction here. How did a Professor come to make such a logical error?
She sets out the eight features that she suggests are essential to the romance novel, and then goes on to analyse a number of novels which are argued to be classic examples of romances using this definition. She picks ‘Pride and Prejudice’ ‘Jane Eyre’ etc from the nineteenth century, novels by Georgette Heyer and Mary Stuart from the twentieth century and then moves her area of interest over to the US and analyses the works of successful romance writers, the pre-plagiarist era of Janet Dailey, the work of Nora Roberts and so on.
When I came on the chapter 'The limits of romance', I hoped that we might come to some true literary criticism; but no, there is none in the book. The novels of Janet Dailey are treated with the same uncritical admiration as the work of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.
As Noah Berlatsky says, 'Regis’ difficulty is that she wants to defend all romance. She is fighting for the honor of romance as a genre, or as a whole. She never, once, in the entire book, admits that any single romance, anywhere, might be formulaic, or badly written. '
It can certainly be argued from her first premise that if one accepts the eight points she outlines as the definition of a romance novel, then works of literature acknowledged as great can be defined as romance novels. It also imposes a rigid formula on a genre which is already generally criticized as being too formulaic, and trapped into unreality and light fiction through the necessity of the fantasy Happy Ever After.
Through this definition, too, various books which many people do regard as exceptionally good examples of the genre are excluded - ie, 'Rebecca'.
Unfortunately, for a book which is meant to be a work of literary criticism, there is no more criticism in it than might be found in some work of positive thinking from a New Age guru. Pamela Regis at no point makes one critical remark about the writing of any of the authors – from Richardson to Nora Roberts. Her ‘analysis’ consists of praise for all of the writers, applying the eight factors to these novels, and saying that they all depict the heroines finding emotional satisfaction at the ending in their invariable choice of the hero - which she equates with 'empowerment' and 'freedom'. I don't quite see how it can be argued that there can be much freedom for the heroine within a genre which by definition gives her no choice - she must accept the hero and this must lead to 'affective individualism'.
This is why I think that insistance on the 'HEA' does a great disservice to the romance novel as an literary form, and a conditional happy ending would be a much more flexible option, or perhaps the 'HFN'. The same is true of the fantasy aspect which precludes realistic or inconvenient sordid details. I know that most romance readers would disagree with that.
The author, in fact, puts herself in an impossible position; in arguing that there have been some romances written which are great literature, pointing to the ‘canonical’ texts of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, but never admits that comparison means just that. If there have been excellent romances written, then by definition there have to have been some far from excellent ones churned out. But as a defender of romance, this is an admission that she cannot make. All that she can do, is to maintain a deafening silence on the topic.
This 'closing ranks' out of defensiveness and equating all criticism with negative criticism is an attitude of the romance community which contradicts the desire of its members for their genre to be taken seriously. Criticism by definition cannot all be positive.
For some reason, Pamela Regis makes no mention of the late Victorian/Edwardian best seller, Charles Garvice. Perhaps he is too much of an embarrassment to acknowledge as an ancestor of modern romance: but perhaps she would have been able to discuss his work with the same obliviousness to its notorious defects as she does that infamous novel by E M Hull, ‘The Sheik’.
This, of course, features a rapist ‘hero’. Pamela Regis quotes sharp criticism of this, and then two women writers who somehow manage to find ‘female liberation’ in this story of women who becomes so attached to her violator that she chooses to attempt to kill herself rather than live without him. This wish to destroy herself is equated by the author with 'affective individualism'.
I would call it 'Stockholm Syndrome' myself.
Quoting a defence of the prevalence of rapist heroes in romances written before the 1970’s on the grounds that it was the only way to make readers accept the heroine’s engaging in pre-marital sex, she goes on to find the heroine strong and independent.
This brings me on to her depiction of Pamela, the heroine of the original best selling romantic novel who is happy to marry the man who has abducted her and subjected her to at least one rape attempt and many sexual assaults.
I’ve read this, and its tedious sequel, ‘Pamela in Her Exalted Condition’ (and also, Clarissa, but that’s irrelevant here) and I do not know how anyone who has, could seriously argue that Pamela obtains any sort of independence through her marriage with Mr B. In fact, I am sorry to have to conclude that Ms Regis is relying on most of her readership not having read the long and tedious Pamela (and believe me, it is very tedious), let alone the dull sequel, to make the assertions that she does about the supposed liberating potential of Pamela’s marriage to Mr B.
When their relationship is put upon a nominally respectable basis, Regis is at pains to point out that Mr B makes Pamela over some money in the marriage settlements, holding this as evidence of her future independence. He also begins at once to lecture her upon wifely duty and obedience – a theme to which he frequently returns in ‘Pamela in Her Exalted Condition’. She is not even allowed to suckle her babies, as he thinks that this will take up too much of the time she should be spending on entertaining him.
But as for Pamela achieving any sort of freedom through her particular Happy Ever After with Mr B, her is the quote Samuel Richardson himself. This is a quote from one of Richardson’s letters of 1749. This says: -
“It is apparent by the whole tenor of Mr B’s behaviour, that nothing but such an implicit obedience, and slavish submission, as Pamela showed to all his injunctions and dictates, could have made her tolerably happy, even with a reformed rake.’
This quote from Richardson’s ‘Selected Letters’ comes from page 90 of Terry Eagleton’s book, ‘The Rape of Clarissa’ and is surely a refutation of Pamela Regis’ claim that Pamela in any way achieves independence of any sort through her marriage with Mr B.
But how Ms Regis could make the assertion that I quoted in the beginning of my review in defence of Pamela marrying the man who has attempted to rape her, is truly astounding. The story can be defined as oppressive because it celebrates the union of a would be rapist and his victim in one of the most distasteful 'HEA''s one can imagine. After this he continues, as Richardson admits, to be totally controlling.
I find the defence of the HEA’s in romance novels that they all lead to great happiness for the heroine in her achievement of ‘affective individualism’ in her choice to marry the hero, plus financial independence, unconvincing.
Regis admits to the ‘frankly individualistic’ nature of these, but she finds the ideology of individualism above critcicism anyway, perhaps forgetting that all ideologies are an aspect of the thinking of a particular historical epoch.
It is arguable that the romance novel as it stands is a form of literature peculiarly suited to a form of society (advanced capitalism) and its ideology of individualism, just as the Grail legends were appropriate to the ideology of feudalism. Pamela Regis brings this out. The HEA for the main couple is an indication of this, though she goes in for some vague talk about the ‘transformation of society’ by their coming together.
For many uncritical fans of the genre – and the literary critic Pamela Regis writes as one, the fantasy element of the HEA is its chief delight. I am of the persuasion that a move to a more realistic, conditional HEA would be one of the factors that would lead to its acceptance as literature.