Vindicating the Historical Romance


  • Cristen Hamilton University of Texas at Dallas


Romance, love, societal expectations for women


The romance as a genre made $1.368 billion in sales last year.  Despite this impressive profit margin, however, many people dismiss romance novels as “trash,” “smut,” “bodice-ripper,” and the new buzz word, “mommy porn.”  Some of the harshest criticism of romance novels comes from feminist scholars like Kay Mussell, who contends that “as an art, [romances] are profoundly unsatisfying and profoundly derivative, for they represent a pathetic attempt to make dramatic a story that seems to lack resonance.”  If what Mussell believes is true, why is this genre so popular?  Could it be there is something in these books that is powerful and meaningful, perhaps something that calls for a change in society?

I propose that there are elements in the historical romance that encourage a change in our current societal expectations for women.  These novels promote change through their representations of empowered heroines who subvert traditional expectations of women’s roles in their own society, thus challenging readers to re-evaluate modern day society’s expectations of beauty, love, and a woman’s role in marriage.  Even though these books are not set in our time period, their ideology against which their protagonists struggle is still both powerful and relevant.  By looking at the past through the lens of the present, we can see that these novels encourage an evolution of societal expectations in three ways: one, by giving women an identity, two, by making women realize that they are unique and beautiful just as they are, and three, by encouraging the idea that women should view marriage as a choice--not just a societal expectation.