Posted November 26, 2009
of the many criticisms levelled at romance novels is that they’re a
poor model for women when it comes to real-life relationships. All
that fairy tale nonsense, detractors say, will make women want the
wrong things from their partners. I could list a dozen things wrong
with that assumption, but I’ll limit myself to three.
the blanket belief that, alone among the literate, romance readers
believe everything they read is seriously insulting. Second, it
demonstrates that said detractors don’t read much modern romance,
or they’d know the kind of realism one can find therein. That’s
annoying. Is divorce realistic, or abuse, or loss? Don’t worry:
they’re covered. (Also, please consider what that means about the
nature of ‘realism’). Third: fairy tales yes, but nonsense?
Please. Bruno Bettleheim would open a can of Jungian whoopass on
such ignorance, and rightfully so.
Fairy tales are a subset of folk tales, and folktales are the backbone of
literature. They are powerful. These are the stories that outlive nations. Religions may try to
bury them, and political regimes to repress them, but folktalkes just
don new clothes, get new haircuts, and keep going. As a kid I read
hundreds, devouring one textbook-sized collection of international
stories after another. So by the time I hit junior high I’d
recognized that the same patterns appeared in stories from every part
of the globe. This story might have a fairy godmother where that one
had a talking fox; this beast might be a lion where that one was a
snake. But the basic patterns, the archtypes, were the same, whether
the story came from France or Russia, from India or China. That’s
not nonsense, it’s nuclear.
yes, romance novels often play off patterns found in fairy and folk
tales. Which is another way of saying they’re tied into the
beating heart of the narrative impulse. They’re the stories that
chronicle women’s lives and their hopes, which are at least as
realistic as their miseries. Fairy tales can encompass just about
any setting, problem or character. In some ways, they’re the
ultimate in fan fiction: since the pattern is already established,
writers need only to allude to it to establish emotional resonance.
I can’t list all the archtypes here, so for the sake of symmetry,
here are the three I think are most common in modern romances.
Beauty and the Beast This is one of my personal favourites. From Persephone onward, in
this story the underlying archetype is that sacrifice is rewarded…
and that men are capable of change. Though the beastly character
isn’t always the hero: Taming
of the Shrew is a Beauty and Beast story too. Of course nowadays beastliness isn’t
a matter of looks but of behavior. So the beast in question might go
from withdrawn to engaged; from rapaciously ambitious to sharing; or
from reckless hedonism to committed monogamy. Don’t be fooled,
though, it’s not an easy trip for anyone involved. But it’s
you like historical romance try: Lord
Loretta Chase;The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer; It Happened One Autumn,
by Lisa Kleypas.
you prefer contemporary: Shoot to Thrill,
Nina Bruhns; Dream
Man, Linda Howard; Cold as Ice
by Anne Stuart.
The hardworking heroine in any of this wide group of stories
epitomizes successful transformation. But the trappings are the
least important part of her elevation. It’s not about the slipper:
it’s about the change in state. There might be a literal move
from rags to riches, but more often Cinderella stories feature
characters who move from paucity to abundance. Not surprisingly,
this is one of the most popular archetypes. After all, if there’s
one thing women know how to do, it’s work. In Cinderella stories,
readers get to see drudgery and discomfort turn into acceptance and
love. Also under this rubric are the stories of disguise and secret
Christina Dodd; Scandal,
Amanda Quick; Reader
Sharon Shinn (which is a fantasy novel, but also a romance: that the
transforming character is male doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong in
Susan Elizabeth Phillips; The Winning Hand,
Nora Roberts; Nine Coaches Waiting,
I have a sneaking fondness for stories of awakening. Not from
sleep, of course: I mean those in which a character comes into her
own, ie: ‘wakes up’ to a sense of her own potential and
abilities. These characters discover and revel in new skills, or
redevelop old ones. They try new experiences, make new friends, and
change their own lives for the better. Change isn’t alwasy easy.
Sometimes it’s a detonation in their existence. And sometimes they
simply learn to let go of weight and pain carried too long. However
it happens, these are the stories of lives refreshed and made
A Summer to Remember, Mary Balogh; Paladin
of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold; Guilty Pleasures,
Laura Lee Gurhke.
Women, Jennifer Crusie; Marianna,
Susannah Kearsley; Lazarus Rising, Anne Stuart.
Szego isn’t a Jungian, but she still thinks Bruno Bettleheim rocks.
Category: RomanceTags: Amanda Quick
, Anne Stuart
, Beauty and the Beast
, Bruno Bettleheim
, Carl Jung
, fairy tales
, Georgette Heyer
, Jennifer Crusie
, Lisa Kleypas
, Lois McMaster Bujold
, Loretta Chase
, Mary Stewart
, Nora Roberts
, Sharon Shinn
, Sleeping Beauty