“A Brief History of the Modern Romance Novel” according to Wendell and Tan


“Boy meets girl,
Holy crap, shit happens!
Eventually, the boy gets the girl back.
They live Happily Ever After.” (p.11)

One would think,” Wendell and Tan acknowledge, “that we could tell the story once and be done with it. But we’ve written and read countless thousands of variations of this story, and we show no signs of being sick of it.

The romance tradition goes all the way back to the oldest myths, and we could wank on and on about medieval courtly love, the rise of the gothic tradition (which marked some of the first popular novels written by and for women), and the influence that people like the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen have had on the various elements of romance, but that could easily take up a book in and of itself. We’re just going to cut right to the chase and talk about the clearest predecessor we can find for the modern romance novel: The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E Woodiwiss.

The Flame and the Flower was first published in 1972, and it’s one of the most famous in the bodice-ripper tradition. These books are typically set in the past, and the hero is a great deal older, more brutal, and more rapetastic than the heroine – but then, despite the way more and more romances push the envelope, we’ve yet to encounter one in which the heroine plunges the depths of the hero’s dark tunnel of muddy love against his will.

But back to The Flame and the Flower. This novel is, in many ways, the Platonic ideal of the bodice ripper. The heroine’s bodice is, in fact, ripped; the hero is appropriately arrogant and hard-edged before being brought low by the power of love; swashes are buckled; buckles are swashed; villains are suitably hideous; and the adventure runs at quite the fever pitch. No noun or verb is left unmodified, and Woodiwiss works simile and metaphor to limp exhaustion. It was a runaway bestseller and spawned countless books that followed, with various degrees of success, that particular formula, such as Rosemary Roger’s infamous Sweet Savage Love (which, if nothing else, is probably the most-parodied romance novel title of all time).” (p.11)

“And honestly,” they write, “‘sweet, savage love’ serves as a neat encapsulation of the older style of romances. The turmoil and violence, they runneth over in torrents as mighty as the hero’s seed. And speaking of mighty torrents of heroic seed, it was well-nigh de rigeur for the heroine to be raped by the hero in those novels. The rape would be justified in any number of ways within the framework of the story [something Wendell and Tan devote some time to discussing in depth and with much humour later]….

And oh lawdy, the sexual euphemisims. Romances like Sweet Savage Love and The Flame and the Flower were a great deal more humpy than any of the other mainstream love stories at the time, and there was a veritable arms race to see who could come up with the moistest grottoes and the most potent (and jutting) spears of manhood so they could titillate without being considered obscene. / They were discreet enough at first.

By the late 1980s, oral sex scenes were practically a requirement (as was the accompanying fluttering distress and confusion of the heroine the first time her hey-nanner made the acquaintance of the hero’s mouth), and we had the occasional startling turn of phrase, like the hero who ‘burst like a ripe melon’ within the heroine, as recorded by Rebecca Brandewyne’s deathless prose in Desire in Disguise.” (p.12)

The genre, however, has changed a great deal since those Old Skool romances were published. it’s true: the covers haven’t changed that much. …But though the covers may be similar, the content is different in some substantial ways. …The Old Skool, very roughly speaking, ran from the late 1970s through the ’80s, while the New Skool started sometime in the late 1980s and continues to the present, but as with any attempts at categorization, there were some books published in the ’80s that were in the New Skool mode, and Old Skool-style romances are still occasionally published.” (p.13)

More old Skool romances, from historicals to contemporaries to category romances, shared several elements in common, elements that don’t necessarily hold true for the newer types of romances that now dominate the market. Some of them include: BRUTAL HEROES” (p13)… RAPE… THE HEROINE: COMIN-OF-AGE COMES EARLY… THE CONFLICTS (“The Big Secret was a staple of Old Skool romance novels. Ranging from ‘My brother is a spy for the enemy’ to ‘I’m a maaaan, baby’ to ‘I lied about something very small and extremely pointless at the beginning of the story, and now it’s snowballed out of control because the author needs about twenty thousand more words’ worth of conflict’, Big Secrets littered the landscape of Romancelandia like dollar bills on a strip club stage. / And then there are the Big Arguments. …[and] Big Misunderstandings.” (pp.16-17)) THE SUDDEN REALIZATION OF LOVE… THE POINT OF VIEW… etc.

Actually, backtracking a little, I quite enjoyed the way Wendell and Tan connected these last two points… they explain: “Given the antagonistic nature of the lovers, resolving the tension between their evident hatred for each other and their out-of-control [-p.19] lust was quite a trick to pull. Thus was born the Sudden Realization of Love device. At some point, the hero and heroine realize: OH! All that hatred, and the fights, and the fear? All actually manifestations of love. Hey, Ike hit Tina because he loved her, okay? And when the hero hits her, it feels like a kiss, obviously.

We’d almost always witness this critical epiphany on the part of the heroine, inevitably followed by page upon page of angst about how the hero could not possibly love her back, so she’d act like even more of a spoiled buttnoid because it’s not as if what she did mattered any more, anyway (cue the world’s tiniest violin). And sometimes, we’d witness the hero being coldcocked by the brass-knuckled fist of love as well, but that was a relative rarity. It was much more common in Old Skool romances for heroes to relate to the heroine, in excrutiating detail, about the Exact Moment the scales fell off his eyes – usually during the denouement at the end of the book. Why? Because of: / THE POINT OF VIEW

Most of these Old Skool romances were written solely or mostly from the heroine’s viewpoint, though a few early authors started including the hero’s point of view, too.” (pp.18-19)

“…Scholars have differing views as to why the viewpoints stayed so faithfully with the heroine for so long. Pamela Regis, in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, offers an analysis of how Old Skool romances followed the heroines partially because they had much more development to undergo than the hero, and the heroine’s achievement of autonomy and self-actualization was the point of the narrative. This borne out by the thirteen-item plot summary for [-p.20] the ideal Old Skool romance formulated by Janice Radway in Reading the Romance, published in 1982:

1. The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.

12. The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
13. The heroine’s identity is restored.

In other words, the quest of the romance was the fulfillment of the heroine, and the hero was often a tool (in the construction sense, not in the dickhead sense, though often he could be both) in that fulfillment.

This idea has merit, but the fact that the hero was simultaneously villain and savior, punisher and lover, probably also dictated the choice of point of view. A lot of the central conflict and tension in Old Skool romances depended on the heroine and the reader not really knowing what the hell was going on in the hero’s head – insofar as he showed any capacity for rational thought not dictated by his penis, that is, and given the priapic state of many romance heroes, that capability is somewhat in doubt.” (pp.9-20)

“But romances,” Wendell and Tan remind us, “have undergone some fairly drastic changes over the past several decades, with trends visibly changing by the late 1980s and early ’90s.” (p.21) It seems, with the New Skool romances, we are starting to see: GENTLER HEROES… MORE SCENES FROM THE HERO’S POINT OF VIEW… THE RISE OF THE KICK-ASS SEXUALLY EXPERIENCED HEROINES… and THE QUIET DEATH OF THE RAPIST HERO [which Wendell and Tan discuss in some depth and in their inimicable style later in the book.]

Ref: (italics in original) Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan (2009) Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. Fireside: New York


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