The Alienated Reader: Women and Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century

Publisher
Harvester Wheatsheaf
Location
Brighton
Publication year
1991
Comment

In the first chapter I introduce a model of the domestic romance, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which not only contains desire within marriage, but is the characteristic expression of the world's first bourgeois class, the modernising landed gentry. I then assess the conditions under which this form took off as a popular, cross-class genre. The modern Western romance is not universal but is grounded in three historical preconditions, the transition to capitalism, Protestantism and patriarchal relations. In turn, cheap mass romances emerged after the 'domestication' of working women, that is, after married women had withdrawn from partnerships in production into economic dependence on men, from 1842 onwards.

I then sketch recent changes in the economics of publishing, which have led to the aggressive marketing of a highly formulaic product. [...] Yet despite its commodified form, the popular romance responds to certain social needs. I look at how this issue has been broached in cultural theory. In particular, the current debate about 'high' and 'low' culture is reappraised, partly to contest the neo-Althusserian approach in which canonised literature is approached as ideology.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 show how different types of writing have competed for lower-class women readers since the 1840s. First, I consider the classical patriarchal form of popular literature in the magazines of the 1930s. This is a highly regressive fiction of social integration [...]. Moreover, as I shall show, there is a 'popular canon' in which certain writers are esteemed highly by lower-class readers. It is this choice which is examined in Chapter 4, with the work of the highly successful regional writer, Catherine Cookson. The roots of her story-telling lie in using the conservative romance with a 'labourist' or social democratic inflexion, evident both in the lower-class perspective and her alternating strands of realism with redemptive utopia. [...]

Chapter 5 shows how the romantic story has developed historically from the 1930s to the 1980s, with respect to the decline of Madonna/whore figures, the lessened intensity of the work ethic for heroes and the reduced salience of questions of class injustice. In the best sellers and short stories of the 1980s, there is fresh growth developing beyond the withered ideological branches of Mills and Boon, which suggests the questioning of the old patriarchal paradigm. A new genre of romantic story has emerged, extending the vocabulary of individual 'natural' rights to women, but combining it with a vision of their heroic progress in the free market economy. Barbara Taylor Bradford is the Horatio Alger or Samuel Smiles of the 1980s and the female entrepreneur is the most fashionable style in which the bourgeoisie presents itself! Chapter 5 also shows the continued significance of the gentry within this fiction; here I follow Roger Bromley's analysis of this class as the bearer of social unity within the romance universe.

The sixth chapter asks: 'How do women decode literature?' I examine critically the work of Pierre Bourdieu on cultural consumption, in the light of interviews with a sample of 115 women in the West of Scotland and conclude that Bourdieu's contrast between popular and cultivated taste in terms of the opposition between social 'function' and 'form' is too limited a perspective on artistic perception. [...]

In concluding, I argue against the recent plea for an 'end to ideology' in social theory. My interviews provide grounds for the view that the type of literature women read is linked to their wider world-view, thus giving a new significance to struggles within the cultural sphere. I suggest that the traditional gentry-bourgeois romance embodies a highly regressive utopian consciousness, which legitimates the world of the dominant classes. Nevertheless, some popular writers are shown to be the bearers of working-class and plebeian experience, possessing a limited capacity to interrogate social contradictions, whilst also bestowing the imaginary solutions to women's needs. The expression of hopes and wish fulfilments are important. For many working-class and petty-bourgeois readers particularly, a 'happy ending, seen through but still defended' is a literary imperative. (2-4)