A Brief History of the Romance Novel

I’ve always loved romance novels. There was a time when I refused to read anything that didn’t have romance in it. My love for the genre eventually transferred to my other hobbies and interests—I never watched shows that weren’t centered around romance, I never wrote stories where the words “I love you” weren’t muttered between soft kisses, and I never played games that wouldn’t let me choose someone to date from a handful of candidates. There’s just something about the sweet, deserved intimacy between two or more people that makes my heart swoon and my days a little brighter.

So why is it that whenever I share my love for this genre, people give me weird looks?

In Maya Rodale’s work Dangerous Books for Girls, she highlights the history of romance novels and why they’ve always been so historically important to women. Women used to be shamed for reading romance books, and sometimes we still are, but despite that shame, these stories have life-changing lessons to teach.

What Did Life for Women Once Look Like?

In the early 1800s, men and women’s gender roles were split into two separate spheres: the public sphere and the domestic sphere. Men, in the public sphere, went out to work, participated in politics, and socialization came easier. Women, in the domestic sphere, cooked, cleaned, took care of the kids, took care of their husbands, and cooked some more. Day in and day out they stayed at home, listened to their babies wail, and finally their husbands “rewarded” them with unsatisfactory sex. If they were in the mood, of course. Many women feared that this was how the rest of their lives were going to be.

Keep in mind, this is how white women lived their lives. For minorities, it was a completely different ballpark. Women of color had no social lives, were deemed property, and were abused until later in the 19th century.

Introducing the Romance Novel

The origin of the romance novel starts around the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded was one of the first, released in 1740. In it, a young woman tries to resist giving her virginity to a wealthy landowner, making it clear that Richardson was writing for the landowning male class.

Fast forward to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in 1811 when women began writing for women. Though they often wrote under male pseudonyms, to decrease the chance of harassment and so their books would be taken seriously, it was usually obvious when women wrote them.

When romance novels became popular around the Jane Austen era, women wasted no time reading them. Being a part of the domestic sphere meant the same boring routines. But romance books were new and exciting. They offered a world previously unheard of. Women in romance novels had hopes and dreams that they strove for and achieved. Their romances often featured men who treated them, if not as equals, at least as real people—and who were very much in love with them. The heroines of romance novels experienced more to life than being a mother and housewife. Women of the nineteenth century wanted that. 

Romance Novels’s “Bad Reputation”

The concept of the romance novel and its freeing power for women seems like it should have been a great thing, but that wasn’t the consensus of the time. Men did not view these changing ideals positively, saying the books set “unrealistic” expectations for them. Books like Pamela, written by men, upheld the idea of virtue being pure and sacred. The romance novels written by women seemed like erotica in comparison, disrupting the innocent nature men wanted women to have. 

The world belittled and berated women for ever hoping they had a chance of living the same lives as their favorite fictional character. Because the books were just that—fiction. Anyone who thought of them as real-life possibilities were dreamers and delusional. At the end of the day, however, it wasn’t that these books held ideas that tainted women and their expectations. It was that women were starting to realize how they’d been treated thus far was not enough.

Don’t Settle for Less, Ladies

Romance novels aren’t nearly as subversive as they once were. Some people—usually men but sometimes traditional women—will always be spooked by the idea that women can be the center of attention, have jobs, and chase after hopes and dreams. But every day more women are empowering each other, loudly and proudly. Younger generations are reading romance novels and realizing they want to marry someone like the main character’s love interest. Beautiful, grown women read these stories and realize they deserve to be treated like the queens they are.

It’s also important to recognize that these novels are no longer solely about straight, white women. Now, women of color and queer women get to find love too. It’s an ever changing industry that will always have room for improvement, but has come a long way.

To every woman who has felt shame for reading a romance novel and longing for what the main character has, wishing you were her—I hope that one day you’ll come to understand that you deserve to be swept up in a good book. You deserve to enjoy all kinds of scenes, no matter how “impure.” And you deserve a partner who will give you just as much as you’re willing to give them. Here’s to your Happily Ever After.

“Your here and now is not your forever. Your situation on page one is not where you’ll end up in the epilogue….your birth is not your destiny.” — Maya Rodale, Dangerous Books for Girls, p. 19

A Study in Classics: Modern-Day Anne Elliots: Love, Marriage, and Societal Pressure in Reality TV

There’s something oddly addictive about reality dating shows. Watchers root for or against couples, forming emotional connections with them, and living vicariously through their experiences, all from the comfort of their own couches. And there’s always the anticipation that the couples formed won’t survive beyond the screen. 

In shows like Love Is Blind, commitment is taken to a whole new level as participants get engaged before ever seeing each other, elevating the stakes and emotions in a way that other dating shows can’t compare to. While it’s entertaining to watch love stories between strangers unfold, these shows also serve to reflect modern-day anxieties about marriage and underscore the enduring societal pressure to tie the knot. Consider how these narratives parallel timeless tales of courtship about navigating the societal expectations to marry. 

When it comes to marriage plots, Jane Austen is an undisputed master, and Persuasion distinguishes itself with its mature and level-headed protagonist, Anne Elliot, who seeks to rekindle romance at a later stage of life while facing mounting expectations to marry. Anne’s struggle between love and societal conformity mirrors the dilemmas that weigh heavily on the women in Love Is Blind. Exploring Persuasion to gain insight into how to navigate the pressures of meeting societal expectations while following one’s heart begs the question: What would Anne Elliot do? 

Marrying for Financial Security 

In Love Is Blind, the central question revolves around the authenticity of love transcending both physical appearances and the material world. However, when reality sets in, financial disparities become a significant challenge. In a recent season, the father of the bride expressed concern about her fiancé’s lower financial status, claiming that love sometimes prefers to “fly first class.” The revelation of a bad credit score ultimately led to the relationship’s demise, resulting in a dramatic wedding day abandonment. 

This situation is reminiscent of Anne and Captain Wentworth’s first failed engagement. Anne fell in love with Captain Wentworth despite his lack of fortune and lower social status, but love was not enough. Sir Walter, Anne’s father, viewed it as a “degrading alliance.” And Lady Russell believed Anne would be throwing herself away to a man who “had no hopes of attaining affluence.” Their opinions, especially Lady Russell’s, deeply affected Anne and caused her to call off the engagement. 

During the Regency Era, Georgian women’s marriages often hinged on securing husbands with substantial fortunes, as they had no separate legal identities and could not own property. Only if a wife outlived her husband could she gain a degree of financial independence through a marriage settlement, inheriting her husband’s fortune. However, Anne refuses to rush into another engagement at age twenty-two with Charles Musgrove out of financial interest, reflecting her strong character and values.

In fact, Anne believes marrying solely for money reflects bad character, while Mrs. Smith simply brushes it off with, “When one lives in the world, a man or woman’s marrying for money is too common to strike one as it ought.” Anne, like many modern women, recognizes the importance of both love and financial compatibility in a partnership. Later, she regrets calling off her engagement at the behest of others as Captain Wentworth goes on to acquire his own fortune. 

In our modern day, women are no longer financially dependent on men, so what we can learn from Anne’s experience is to build trust in a relationship and support one another to achieve individual goals, ensuring both partners are prepared for a shared future. With this perspective, Anne would understand the decision of individuals in Love Is Blind to prioritize financial stability. 

Biological Clock Ticking 

Women in shows like Love Is Blind often join with the desire to start a family, fearing that waiting to meet the right person organically might jeopardize their chances of having children. Similarly, the unmarried women in Persuasion face the pressure to marry and start families while they’re still young, which is mirrored by Sir Walter’s fixation on youth and the Baronetage, a record of noble families. 

The recurrence of women’s names in the Baronetage is due to their success in marrying and multiplying; therefore, Sir Walter values his daughters based on their perceived attractiveness and marriage prospects. He favors Anne’s sister Elizabeth the most because he believes she is still beautiful at twenty-nine and will soon marry suitably. But even Elizabeth feels “the years of danger” toward spinsterhood approaching and averts her eyes when she sees the Baronetage. Austen writes, “Always to be presented with the date of her own birth and see no marriage follow but that of a youngest sister, made the book an evil.” 

Meanwhile, Sir Walter values Anne least of all because he always “had found little to admire in her.” At twenty-seven years of age, her father finds her “faded and thin” and even “haggard.” Austen writes, “He had never indulged much hope, he had now none, of ever, reading her name in any other page of his favourite work.” Despite her father’s disappointment, Anne isn’t swayed by the pressure to rush into marriage while still young to add more names to the Baronetage. 

Austen’s novel shows the promise and beauty of discovering love in later stages of life, emphasizing the development of genuine connections without the urgency of starting a family. Anne’s experience serves as a reminder that women should not succumb to the notion that their time is running out, but instead, value themselves as individuals first. 

Marrying for Love 

Every participant on Love Is Blind shares the common desire to find authentic love based on inner qualities, rather than superficial attributes like appearance, age, or financial status. Yet these programs impose the pressure of falling in love, getting engaged, and marrying in just a few weeks. 

Similarly, Anne and Captain Wentworth first fall in love and get engaged within the span of a few months. Despite Anne’s initial regret when she calls off the engagement at nineteen, as time passes, she doesn’t blame herself or others for influencing her decision. By the age of twenty-seven, she realizes she made the right choice given the circumstances at the time, while her unwavering love for Captain Wentworth proves it was more than a fling. 

Time apart from each other not only sees Captain Wentworth become a more suitable match for Anne, but it also allows Anne to emotionally mature. Austen writes, “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” When they reconnect, they are able to build a stronger relationship based on their merits as equals and respect for their differences. Above all, Anne and Captain Wentworth’s love story illustrates that marriage results from a culmination of both romantic and realistic elements, and that it cannot be rushed if it is to last. 

Jane Austen’s Persuasion and shows like Love Is Blind reveal the complexities of love and marriage that transcend time. The pursuit of genuine connections, the tension between love and practicality, and the weight of societal expectations all echo through these narratives. Anne Elliot’s journey serves as a timeless reminder that women should prioritize their individual worth and not yield to societal pressure, while also valuing love and financial compatibility in a partnership. For more of Austen’s love advice, read Jerakah Greene’s article “A Study in Classics: Dating Tips from Jane Austen” right here on F(r)iction