the immortal and the immoral: the romance, the novel, and the romance novel


I met Jodi McAlister when I flew to Sydney to have high tea with Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches. I was lucky enough to sit at a table with her and hear tantalising snatches about her PhD thesis on virgin heroines in romance novels.

The conversation turned that way at one point and she said, “Don’t ask me about it, though, or I’ll be talking for hours!” All I could think was, Please start talking. I think and talk about romance in a casual way on here and with my writing peeps, but Jodi has studied this stuff for years. I wanted to crack into her brain and bask in it.

As that is, um, not a thing you do, I did the next best thing and asked her to write me a post about it. Then Sarah Wendell beat me to it. If you haven’t yet, you should head over and read the interview – it really is fascinating stuff.

This paragraph in particular grabbed my attention:

(One thing I think is really interesting is that you’ll often read that Samuel Richardson invented the novel when he wrote Pamela, or maybe Daniel Defoe, but this is doing a great disservice to the ladies who were writing it first: people like Aphra BehnEliza Haywood, and Delarivier Manley, who has one of my favourite author names of all time. These authors – Manley in particular – implictly rejected the idea that if you lost your virginity in the wrong way, you were automatically a bad person. They’re really fascinating works, and it bums me out that a bunch of dudes get the credit for inventing the novel when the ladies pretty clearly got there first.)

so I asked Jodi to write about this instead, and it’s absolutely fascinating. I’m thrilled to have her on the blog!



When people ask me what I study, I usually tell them “romance novels”. However, if I’d said those two words together in the eighteenth century, people would definitely have looked at me funny. “But a romance and a novel are the same thing!” some might have said. “But they’re completely different things – you can’t just put them together like that!” others might have said. (I am totally paraphrasing my hypothetical eighteenth century people: language, like genre, has changed profoundly from then to now!)

The terms “romance” and “novel” have a very complicated history. The novel became an increasingly popular form in the eighteenth century, at which point the romance had been around for a very long time. Both were works of extended prose: what, then, was the difference? what made the novel a new form? Maybe it was the length, or the characters, or the morals. Maybe it was the setting, or the titles, the poetic vs prosaic focus, or any number of things. In reality, the line between the two could be very, very blurry. As the meaning of the two terms evolved, they often came to be applied retroactively. There is a lot of debate out there as to what the first novel in the English language actually is. The reality is that there isn’t an easy answer, because the boundary between the novel and the romance is not clearcut.

To make something complicated simple, the most common trope used to (retroactively) separate the novel from the romance was realism. In her 1785 work The Progress of Romance, Clara Reeve argued that the romance portrays “what never happened nor is likely to happen”, while the novel “gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves.” We might also tie this to the growing separation between “high” and “low” (or popular) culture – Bradford K Mudge talks about this in terms of “immortal” and “immoral” works of literature. For the novel to become a literary or immortal form, he argues, it needed another immoral form against whom its merits could be judged. For Mudge, this other form is pornography, but I think it can be argued that the “romance” was also othered in this way. Indeed, for some cultural commentators, there was not a lot of difference between romance and pornography as far as the effect on the (female) reader was concerned: a letter to the editor in a 1730 edition of The Universal Spectator read:

“And now, as to the Ladies favourite Collection, Romances. It grieves me to say it, they ruin more Virgins than Masquerades or Brothels. They strike at the very Root of all Virtue, by corrupting the Mind.”

We can see here just how very dangerous female fantasy was considered to be – the romance, an explicitly fantastical genre, ruins more virgins than brothels? This particular letter is decrying the “lewd Inventions of H—–d and M—-y”: Eliza Haywood and Delarivier Manley. And yet did these two authors really write “romances”?

Haywood and Manley are not names that come up a lot in discussions about what the first novel was. They are two of the three female writers that make up “the fair triumvirate of wit”: the third, Aphra Behn, sometimes gets a mention, but usually, the first novel badge is usually pinned on Daniel Defoe or Samuel Richardson, shunting the works of these three authors into the pre/non-literary “immoral” category. But if we use the idea of realism to distinguish between the immortal and the immoral, which is really more realistic? In Richardson’s Pamela, a penniless servant girl marries her aristocratic master, basically as a reward for her not succumbing to his aggressive physical, financial, and psychological attempts to seduce/rape her previously. Compare this to what Manley says in the preface to The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zarazinians:

“It wou’d in no wise be probable that a Young Woman fondly beloved by a Man of great Merit, and for whom she had Reciprocal Tenderness, finding herself at all Times alone with him… cou’d always resist his addresses.”

Manley argued in this preface that female readers wanted to see characters more like themselves represented on the page: more realistic heroines, we might say. (Certainly more realistic than Richardson’s Pamela!) And she was certainly not averse to representing real(istic) people on the page – at least one of her books was noticeably based on real people, something for which she stood trial. What is noticeable in her books are her passionate female characters: for example, in the novella ‘The Wife’s Resentment’ in The Power of Love,  Violenta is seduced and then discarded, so she stabs her seducer to death, dismembers him, and tears out his tongue (so he can no longer use it to seduce young women) and his heart. There is an implicit protest against the virgin/whore dichotomy in a lot of her work, and a recognition that the world is not fair for women: Violenta’s story ends with her recounting the events leading up to her violent crimes at her trial, with everyone in the court “Amazed at [her] Courage and Magnanimity”.

Manley is not alone in her portrayal of strong, passionate, unconventional female characters who break both laws and social norms. The following passage is from Eliza Haywood’s Life’s Progress Through The Passions Or, The Adventures of Natura. (For context, Natura is the main character, and, intending to marry, he has been courting a girl named Maria. Someone has just tried to kill him, and it is very strongly suggested that Maria was behind it.)

“The assassin was soon after brought to a public trial, where tortures making him confess the truth, he acknowledged, that having been a servant in the family, the beauty of Maria had inspired him with desires, unbefitting the disparity between them; – that emboldened by an extraordinary goodness she shewed to him, he had declared his passion, and met with all the returns he wished; – that she became pregnant by him, and had made a vow to keep herself single, till the death of her father should leave her at liberty to marry him; but that an unlucky accident having discovered their amour, he was turned out of the house, and the grief Maria conceived at it occasioned an abortion; but that after her recovery she contrived means to meet him privately, and to support him with money, that he might not be obligated to go to service any more… and he learned from her the addresses of Natura, and the positive commands laid on her by her parents of marrying him, in order to retrieve her honour and reputation; that as besides the extreme love he had for her, his own interest obliged him to hinder the match, if by any means he could; and finding no other than the death of his rival, he had attempted it by the way already mentioned…”Maria’s lover is executed, and Maria herself descends into madness and is sent away to live in a convent. However, Natura, the protagonist, finds that he “could not avoid feeling a very tender commiseration for her”. This illicit love affair, taking place across class differences and definitely counter to popular morality, is portrayed sympathetically.

The reason that the books of Manley, Haywood and Behn got thrown in the immoral rather than the immortal basket was not because of some arbitrary distinction between the romance and the novel but because they were dangerous. Their literary form is the form Richardson was trying to remake in a moral form when he wrote Pamela. Social anxieties about what women read and what they took from it were rife, as demonstrated in that letter to the editor quoted above. Female fantasy, whether or sex or violence or revenge or passion, taking place as it did outside the controlled bounds of patriarchal society, was considered frightening and perilous.

Modern romance fiction are also repositories of female fantasies, and when thinking of the way the genre is often treated by cultural commentators, it’s not difficult to see parallels. What if romances give women unrealistic expectations? What if women can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality? We’ve all read this before. ‘Romance’, as a generic term, is often still a dirty word.

Note: every comments puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover!

Comments 6 Responses

  1. Liz Mc2

    What a fascinating post! A couple of years ago I started my British Novel survey course with Haywood’s Love in Excess, inspired by my new status as a romance reader. We talked about some of the issues you discuss here. I found students really struggled with it: formally, it’s much more episodic than a lot of fiction they’re assigned; the love stories did not fit the conventions of today’s popular romance, fictional or filmic (why the heck were these people in love with each other, they wondered?); and the morality, or lack thereof, troubled them (the reasons some characters were punished and others weren’t seemed unclear). I had some of the same issues myself, since I’m a Victorianist by training.

    I really enjoyed the experience. One of the paper topics I suggested was comparing the novel to a Harlequin Presents or the requirements for a Presents novel on Harlequin’s website. (Only one person tried it–I needed a real romance reader).

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Don’t we all sometimes just need a real romance reader? 😀

      I’d never heard of any of these novelists, which is why the paragraph about them stood out to me. I’ve not read Samuel Richardson either, but I have of course heard of him.

      I love the idea of reading a romance that relies on an alien moral context. Morality has more bearing on love than people talk about, I think. I’ve sometimes wondered: If the person you love murdered someone, would you stop loving them? If you would then does love rely on a moral judgement?

  2. Pingback: the list | diary of a(n accidental) housewife

  3. Sarma Burdeu

    Another fabulous post Anna. How interesting that ‘romance’ was not considered ‘real writing’ and that is somehow corrupts women or gives us a false impresion of how life should be right from the start. While women have taken responsibility for what they want (in life and in their reading/writing) for many so-called ‘experts’ it’s still not valid.

    Fascinating reading – thanks Jodi.

  4. Pingback: another not so so-so sunday | diary of a(n accidental) housewife

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.