In her study of Harlequin Romances, Gothic novels, and soap operas, Tania Modleski introduces what she describes as “an admittedly overschematized lineage for the three forms under consideration.” (15) Overschematized, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless! She writes: “Harlequins can be traced back through the work of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen to the sentimental novel and ultimately …to the novels of Samuel Richardson, whose Pamela is considered by many scholars to be the first British novel (it was also the first English novel printed in America); Gothic romances for women, also traceable through Charlotte Brontë, date back to the eighteenth century and the work of Ann Radcliffe; and soap operas are descendants of the domestic novels and the sensation novels of the nineteenth century. In turn, the “antecedants” of the domestic novels, according to Nina Baym, “lay… in the novel of manners, with its ‘mixed’ heroine as developed by Fanny Burney, and even more in the fiction of the English women moralists – Mrs. Opie, Mrs. Barbauld, and especially maria Edgeworth, with her [-p.16] combination of educational intention, moral fabulating, and description of manners and customs.”
My classification is,” Modleski continues, “as I say, overschematized, for the genres do overlap. Thus the plot of the sentimental novel, which often depicts a young, innocent woman defending her virginity against the attacks of a rake, who might or might not reform, would frequently find its way into the domestic novel, which tended to center around women’s activities in the home.” (15-16)
“The sentimental novel flourished in America at the end of the eighteenth and in the early nineteenth century. It was, however, an [-p.17] English import rather than an indigenous American product. Like the Harlequins of the present day, the novels repeatedly insisted on the importance of the heroine’s virginity. In the classic formula, the heroine, who is often of lower social status than the hero, holds out against his attacks on her ‘virtue’ until he sees no other recourse than to marry her. Of course, by this time he wants to marry her, having become smitten with her sheer ‘goodness’. The early women novelists became preoccupied, not to say obsessed, with the morality of this plot. Whether or not a rake would really reform was a burning question: some novelists said no, some said yes, and many said no and yes – i.e. put themselves on record as being opposed to the idea that a rake would ever improve his morals and then proceeded to make an exception of their hero.
In these debates, however, the sexual double standard was seldom seriously challenged; very few women went so far as one female character, who, in any case, is not the heroine of the novel: “I could never see the propriety of the assertion [that reformed rakes make the best husbands]. Might it not be said with equal justice, that if a certain description of females were reformed, they would make the best wives?” Rather, the inequality between the sexes was dealt with in other ways [which Modleski goes on to discuss].” (16-17)
“In Harlequins, the battle continues to be fought out not in the sexual arena, but in the emotional and – stretching the term – the ethical one. If the Harlequin heroine never questions the necessity of remaining a virgin while the man is allowed to have had a variety of sexual experiences, there is a tacit insistence that the man share her ‘values.’ … the man… is usually even capable of identifying a material as ‘tulle’. More, in novel after novel, the man is brought to acknowledge the preeminence of love and the attractions of domesticity at which he has, as a rule, previously scoffed.” (17)
“Another typical, but far more somber plot, dealt with the woman who gave in to the libertine, and at the end of the novel [-p.18] died a penitent and often excrutiating death. This is essentially the story of the two most popular women’s novels of the period, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte: A Tale of Truth and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. …The emotional force of these novels seems often to lie less in the act of sin, the ‘elopement,’ than in the death scenes themselves, a fact which has disturbed and puzzled many critics. But death is too convenient to women fantasists to be easily relinquished, for it can serve a variety of functions. On the one hand, it endows the woman with something like ‘tragic hero’ status: ‘What can a heroine do?’ asks Joanna Russ in pointing out that men have taken all the active plots. She can die. And in dying, she does not have to depart from the passive feminine role, but only logically extend it. On the other hand, death can be a very powerful means of wreaking vengeance on others who do not properly ‘appreciate’ us, and it is in this form that the fantasy of death can be found in Harlequin Romances, which, with their happy endings, seem on the surface to have nothing in common with the tragic Clarissa plot.” (17-18)
“From one point of view nothing could be easier than to ridicule the prevalence of the seducer in these early novels, and scholars, especially male scholars have not been behindhand in doing so.” (18) However, Modleski explains, the use of this character is more than mere repetition. “The figures of Mr. B in Pamela, Lovelace in Clarissa, together with their numerous successors, enhanced the importance of women … and at the same time provide the means by which women can localize their diffuse and general sense of powerlessness. / In giving vent to this sense of powerlessness, the sentimental novels look forward to the themes, fantasies, and preoccupations of both the domestic novels and the Gothic novels. The ‘reformed rake’ plot and the debate which raged around it pointed to [-p.19] women’s sense of vulnerability in regard to marriage and hence foreshadowed the critique of the family which would be the covert project of the so-called ‘domestic’ novelists. As Foster’s The Coquette makes clear, one of the great attractions of the rake was that he seemed to provide an exciting alternative to the staid domestic ‘pleasures’ which were all good women were supposed to want.” (17-19)
Ref: Tania Modleski (1982) Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. Archon Books: Hamden, Connecticut