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The “Canon” of the Romance Genre?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

For the past several weeks, I’ve been following a blog that’s written by several members of the faculty of many universities around the world (Canada, Germany, UK, US, etc.) who are approaching Popular Romance as a genre worthy of literary consideration and criticism, just like the literary fiction that is most commonly focused on in “literature” classes in the world of academia.

Teach Me Tonight
Musings on Romance Fiction from an Academic Perspective

This morning, one of the contributors to the blog brought up the topic of “canon”—in other words, the books/authors which are considered to be the founding or pivotal steps in the development of the genre as separate from other genres. And he brought up a good point—there isn’t much consensus on which books and/or authors are considered canon for popular romance.

However, I was quite surprised by the names he didn’t mention (and we’re talking about the evolution of the genre as written/published in the English language). If I were to teach a class on popular romance as literature for college credit (and, let’s face it, now that I’m teaching, this isn’t as far-fetched a scenario as I once thought), I’d have to start off with the three “grandmothers” of the genre:

Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Brontë

Does that mean I believe these represent the best books in the genre (two Gothic-style romances, and one contemporary romance—contemporary because it was set in the time in which it was written)? No. I slogged through The Mysteries of Udolpho to write a paper in college; P&P is not my favorite Austen novel (it’s Persuasion, in case you didn’t already know that); and I’m not a fan of any of the novels penned by the Brontë sisters. However, as a scholar of the genre, there’s no getting around the fact that these three novels influenced and shaped the direction the romance genre would evolve over the next two centuries. (And by “romance,” we’re focusing here on books that feature as the main plotline a couple’s developing relationship which has a happily ever after ending, i.e., they end up together.)

Moving forward from these three, I’d probably include some, if not all, of the following in a study of the genre:

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell

And of course, I’d have to include books by:

  • Georgette Heyer
  • Barbara Cartland
  • Kathleen Woodiwiss
  • Danielle Steele
  • Nora Roberts
  • Loretta Chase

And then I’d have to pull in many of the legends/fairytales that continue, to this day, to shape romance stories:

  • Cinderella
  • Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady
  • Tristan & Isolde
  • Ruth
  • King Arthur–Guinevere–Lancelot

But I have to admit, I’m not really well-read in “classics” of the romance genre. I pick and choose what I like and tend not to read stuff just because “everyone else has read it” or “it’s a classic.” (Actually, I tend to stay away from those.)

So I’m putting this out there to you, all of my lovely readers.

What novels and/or authors do you consider to be the “classics” of the romance genre? Which ones should be included in a college course on the evolution of the Popular Romance genre?

  1. Melissa Doll permalink
    Wednesday, October 31, 2012 1:44 pm

    Jayne Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is a romance I revisit periodically. I also vote for Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds as a stand-alone-romance book. And yes, Gone with the Wind. The last two are one-and-done books, not necessarily authors of pervasive influence.


    • Wednesday, October 31, 2012 2:00 pm

      What is it about The Thorn Birds and Gone With the Wind that makes you consider them romance novels? If we look at the definition of romance novels, they’re about the developing relationship between two characters culminating in a happy ending (they end up together). I’ve never read The Thorn Birds, so I don’t know if that’s what it’s about. But I know GWTW isn’t—I would classify it as historical women’s fiction (it’s about the woman’s internal journey). But I want to know your opinion—why do you consider them “romance” classics? What do they add to the romance genre as a whole?


      • Friday, November 2, 2012 6:01 pm

        I don’t understand the GWTW thing either, but I’ve had friends claim it’s romantic and practically swoon over Rhett. Is it just the characters relationship and not their end that matters?


  2. Wednesday, October 31, 2012 3:02 pm

    Thanks for your post, Kaye. You may already be aware of Princeton University’s conference on the romance genre that sparked a great deal of interest a few years ago. In case you are not, however, here is the link:


    MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA
    Harbourlight Books-December 2012


  3. Wednesday, October 31, 2012 7:26 pm

    gone with the wind for certain. but, i think ‘the blue castle’ by lm montgomery was a romance book even before popular romance became a genre. it’s a pre-cursor. it has all of the elements, is certainly the first book of its kind to come out of canada and, if we look closely, it might be one of the first in north america.


    • Wednesday, October 31, 2012 7:40 pm

      And again, I have to ask, why do you consider GWTW a romance novel? As explained in the post and in my comment above, a romance novel is defined as a story about the developing relationship between the main characters, ending with the two of them happily together. Granted, I’ve never read GWTW, but having been subjected to watching the movie countless times in my life (it’s my sister’s favorite), if it’s anywhere near the book as to how the story goes, it’s women’s fiction, not romance. It’s about Scarlett’s internal journey, and I don’t remember it having an ending in which she and Rhett end up together. So why is it considered a “romance” novel?


      • Thursday, November 1, 2012 9:24 am

        if you haven’t read it, i can see why you don’t understand some of our beliefs that it fits into the structure; more along the epic romance lines of one like karleen koen or kathleen winsor. and while they don’t end happily together on page; there is the hope of happiness. i would say it is romance because the heroines relationships (sexual, marital and of convenience) pervade the story to such an extent that it can be classified as little else. perhaps, then, it belongs in the subgenre of romantic epic. again, i speak of karleen koen. but i believe they do live happily ever after once the page has been turned; but it is again left to your imagination. i would also say that mitchell’s juvenalia shows her as a precursor to the popular romance of the day. her lost ‘laysen’ more acutely defines some of the tenets you mention. above. i strongly recommend you read gone with the wind if you haven’t yet; if only because it is so telling of where we have come in publishing when it comes to mass market fiction and because of its interesting and timeless take on the American Civil War. I think it has provided an imaginative canvas that many people look to when the Civil war is brought to mind and whether accurate or non, it cannot be escaped when looking at the 20th Century literary canon (romantic or otherwise) as a whole.


        • Thursday, November 1, 2012 10:01 am

          Thank you so much for taking the time to explain it like this, Rachel! Whenever I’ve asked people this question before, I usually get a shrug and a, “just because it is” answer. One of the reasons I wanted to do a post like this is because, as I admitted, I’m not very well read in what others consider to be the “classics” of the romance genre—so this is a chance for me to expand my own understanding of the development of the genre as well as the wider reading community’s experience of it.


        • Thursday, November 1, 2012 10:03 am

          Oh, and I never read it because, as mentioned, I was subjected to the movie so often in my teens/early 20s because of my sister.

          Also, I minored in Civil War history for three years when I was at LSU, and I’ve never been able to read fiction set during that era. Not sure why, because I have enjoyed many movies/miniseries which take greater liberties with the actual history than the books do. Maybe it has to do with overexposure to reading about it academically?


  4. Ruth permalink
    Wednesday, October 31, 2012 9:12 pm

    Perhaps some are thinking of GWTW as a romance along the lines of Walter Scott’s novels or their ilk…


  5. Wednesday, October 31, 2012 10:25 pm

    I’d even go a bit further back than Udolpho. I’d like to see the canon include some things from the medieval courtly love tradition, just because it’s the great-grandaddy of our modern romances. I think you’d want to read things like “Tristan and Isolde” and “the Romance of the Rose”, to get a picture of what romance looked like before it had happy endings (and back when it usually included adultery <- it's complicated, but basically the idea was that you were supposed to yearn for a lady who was above you in station, which meant that it wouldn't be your wife you were yearning for). And then you'd read Dante's "Vita Nuova" and "Divine Comedy" to see how he took romance and turned it into something that could lead you past earthly love, and onto a contemplation of the divine. And then read a few of Shakespeare's comedies (hey, the romances have happy endings now!).

    Then to Udolpho! 🙂


    • Wednesday, October 31, 2012 10:28 pm

      Oops, I didn’t read closely enough – you already mentioned Tristan and Isolde! Sorry!


  6. Michelle permalink
    Wednesday, October 31, 2012 11:12 pm

    I have to agree with those who mentioned GWTW and The Thorn Birds. GWTW is one of the epic romances. I’m certain that if you polled people about romances from literature and film, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler would be near, if not at, the top of the list. Is it a happy ending romance? No, of course not, but to me it’s still a romance. As for The Thorn Birds, it’s a perfect example of a doomed, almost tragic romance.


  7. Thursday, November 1, 2012 12:57 am

    So GWTW has contributed to the development of the genre, even though it doesn’t have the HEA ending that we now consider defines a romance.

    Personally, I’d also include Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, for their 1970’s gothic romances.


  8. Thursday, November 1, 2012 10:09 am

    The posting continues over on the Teach Me Tonight. Here’s today’s post with a list of books that one of the profs has taught:



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