Love and romance novels

Publication year

From the introduction to the volume:

Melding romance scholarship to the historical, sociological and literary scholarship about romantic love in Europe and America, Hsu-Ming Teo’s chapter (Chapter 21) begins with a description of how ideas about romantic love developed and changed from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries, and how these ideas have influenced the portrayal of love in romance novels—particularly who is worthy of being loved and, consequently, who can enjoy the role of romantic protagonist. Teo argues that by the mid-twentieth century, the markers of love had become secularized and sexualized, but that love in late twentieth- and twenty-first-century romance novels began to emphasize the importance of developing and maintaining intimacy—a problematic concept in itself, as the work of David Shumway shows. The chapter then reviews the extant scholarship on the romance novel, charting changing approaches from the early feminist writings arguing that love was precisely the problem for romantic heroines, for it disempowered them individually, economically, and politically, and made them submissive to or accepting of the patriarchal order of society. However, more recent third-wave scholarship on love moves away from the “empowerment versus oppression” (Goade) binary to ask instead how love functions in individual novels, and how these representations of love develop over time and across different cultures. (18)


Romantic love is not a specific, precise emotion; it is a bundle of ideas, values, and feelings, and a historically changeable set of cultural practices. The historian William Reddy, who specializes in the history of emotions and investigates cultural texts in conjunction with current psychological and neuroscientific scholarship, argues that there is no universal understanding of “sex” or “love,” or the relationship between the two. While all human societies share the experience of sexual desire, affection, and what Reddy calls a “longing for association” (6), the meanings of sex and love are culturally constituted and do not exist independently of historically-specific societies. As sociologist Steven Seidman observes, “love has no essential or unitary identity. Not only does its meaning change over time, but within a given society at a fixed time there will be variations in its meaning” (4). For instance, factors such as “gender, class, education, or social status shape cultural meanings and practices” of love (4). Thus “what has been called by one name—romantic love—was actually a variety of emotional states within different historical situations” (Lystra 28).
That romantic love is socially and culturally constituted, and historically contingent, has important implications for romantic fiction. As understandings of love transform over time, these changing meanings are reflected in how romance novels represent falling in love, being in love, what love means, and what love is supposed to do to and for lovers. In turn, the discourses of love represented in romance novels feed back into and influence how particular societies recognize and understand the operation of romantic love in popular culture. (454)


The one fundamental idea about romantic love in European-derived cultures throughout the last millennium is that love—especially “true love”—is different from, and superior to, lust or sexual desire even though it incorporates desire; love transcends the physical appetites of the body. (454)


With regards to the modern romances discussed, about two whole pages are devoted to Jennifer Crusie's Fast Women and Bet Me, making this a significant contribution to research on these novels.