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Together We’ll Break These Chains of Love


Last week I discussed the device of forced seduction as part of the literary legacy of North American captivity narratives on genre Romance. As I’ve noted several times during this series, I think that the genre as it has developed in America, at least (and I would include a good deal of Harlequin’s offerings in this, even though Harlequin/Mills and Boon, as a publisher, has what I think of as a more international character) is reflective of American and British cultural and historical (patriarchal) norms. Reading Merrian Weymouth’s fascinating post on captivity and the history of Australia reinforced my perception of genre Romance as very much an Anglo-American invention, even as it draws on a rich and long history of literary and cultural influences.

This week I want to focus on the way Romance also utilizes the cross-cultural aspects of captivity narratives – sometimes in concert with forced seduction, as in The Sheik – as a way to emphasize and perhaps re-imagine the love union as one that can serve as a model for social change and cultural (including racial) hybridization that results in a more inclusive, egalitarian community.

There are a number of ways in which genre Romance re-enacts the captivity narrative, some of which have evolved into their own subgenres – sheik and Native American-themed Romances, for example – and others that make use of subgenres like SF/F and paranormal Romance. Although the characterizations of cultural difference in these novels can oftentimes be very problematic – fetishizing via the erotic-exotic, stereotypical, etc. – they can also be aspirational, in the sense of challenging social norms of patriarchy, cultural hierarchies, and autonomy/authority based on social status. Although the complexity and success of this venture varies widely, I think some of the more potentially subversive elements of the genre (in terms of social norms) come sharply into relief in these narrative contexts.

Before I go on, I want to note a couple of things: first, in these narratives, cultural diversity and hybridization are viewed as positive values (another way in which I see Romance rooted in an Anglo-American cultural context). Consequently, these narrative involve a certain level of cultural appropriation for the purpose of investigating alternative cultural and social realities, which themselves are not necessarily grounded in an authentically realized portrayal. But given the way women socialized within a Western, patriarchal, primarily white paradigm often have simultaneous positions of privilege and marginalization, I think the transcultural space so often created in these types of Romance narratives is a logical, but not unproblematic, extension of that insider-outsider tension.

Take Louise Allen’s Harlequin Historical novel, Virgin Slave, Barbarian King, for example. One of the most straightforward challenges to the “civilized v savage” dynamics that exists, not only in the North American captivity narratives, but in many other cultural contexts, Allen’s story is set in Ancient Rome, where the Romans become the reactionary barbarians, and the Visigoths the civilized progressives. Although the reversal is rather unsubtle, the intention is clear: the Visigoth warrior Wulfric captures the wealthy, privileged Julia Livia Rufa, who becomes liberated through her captivity from a life of social and cultural limitations she did not even recognize until she lives among the egalitarian-minded Goths.

All of Julia’s wealth and social privilege as a Roman did not give her the kind of autonomy and personal agency she has with Wulfric, and her realization makes her want to create a new kind of reality with him, one that blends the best of her Roman and his Goth customs. Wulfric tells Julia that he wants to settle in Gaul to “’learn to live with my Roman neighbors.’” Flipping the social script, Allen grounds notions of civilization and barbarism in human nature, rather than cultural difference. Julia sees in Wulfric a man who is “like his wolf, domesticated until roused, then a killer,” while Wulfric compares Julia to “an exotic animal, half-tame, half-wild.” Although highly idealized and somewhat simplistic in its reversal of the old captivity ideology, (which, does, of course, wind through the history of Rome), Allen’s novel also very bluntly sets the agenda for the transcultural union as one that can represent and initiate transformative, egalitarian social evolution.

Although sheik Romances often seem to be either loved or hated en mass, there is actually quite a bit of diversity within the subgenre. Certainly some of these novels perpetuate the exotic-erotic stereotype of “Otherness,” and some even utilize that sense of cultural difference to reinforce Western (often white) values [note: this is a great introduction to race formation theory, which shows race, as we often use the construct, to be artificial rather than genetically or even phenotypically based]. You see some of that in The Sheik, for example, with Ahmed’s European ancestry.

However, take a novel like Michelle Reid’s The Sheik’s Chosen Wife, in which Hassan engages an elaborate plan to kidnap his estranged wife, Leona. Initially, the novel lets you believe that Hassan has completely nefarious motives in taking Leona captive, and it is only after they are together on his yacht that we discover that Leona left Hassan because, after a couple of years of marriage and no pregnancy, she feared she could not give him a child, let alone a son. Hassan is in a difficult position politically, because many of his region’s elders are traditional, and they want Hassan to take a second wife so he can have a son and heir. Hassan, an Arab Muslim, is a progressive who respects the traditionalism of the elders. His own behavior mirrors this tension, as he employs a rather reactionary strategy to convince Leona, a white Englishwoman, that he still wants to be married to her and only her, regardless of the eventuality of a child.

It is a difficult balance that Reid tries to maintain, and one she reflects in Hassan’s own political and personal struggles, making it clear that he values the old traditions, but that he also sees the need for change, and he is trying to negotiate between these forces. Leona, for her part, has not merely left Hassan because she feels she’s “failed” him (her word, which he strongly objects to), but because she cannot stand the idea of him taking a second wife. The book plays out these tensions, trying not to fall too far over on one side or the other. What happens to the hereditary monarchy if Leona and Hassan cannot bear a son? What happens to their marriage if Hassan cannot deliver on his familial and political duties?

This dilemma is one the book takes seriously, and while it is an idealized, semi-fictional cultural space that Reid creates (although she identifies Hassan as an Arab Muslim from the Persian Gulf region, the country is fictitious), it is one that shows earnest respect for cultural differences, without levying judgment on either side. Even the book’s resolution is somewhat ambiguous, in the way it reinforces traditional norms in both Hassan and Leona’s cultural contexts.

What is interesting to me about Reid’s novel is that it overtly grapples with how to balance competing, even sometimes mutually exclusive social responsibilities and cultural values, without sacrificing the individual desires, which, I’ve argued before, is a hallmark genre trait. I see Reid’s novel as doing some of that symbolic work, but trying to do it in a somewhat realistic way, even though the setting is not fully real.

The tension between realism – making something appear real – and reality – something as it is in actual fact – is part of what makes Romance so powerful and so problematic at the same time. On the one hand, there is an aspirational quality to Romance, whereby a level of individual autonomy is given to people who, in the social reality of their time, may not have had so much latitude. This is where you see the more idealistic and progressive elements of the genre working (and the remnants of Classical Comedy, which used love and marriage to represent forward-moving social change). And yet, through this idealization, historical and social realities can be erased or whitewashed in such a way as to appear to reproduce social privilege (especially if one does not share the social vision of the novel’s happy ending). This tension tracks parallel to the social norming tensions, because so often these questions of social privilege are simultaneously questions about status and about the extent to which one has the freedom to discount or buck social and cultural norms.

In Bound and Determined, literary critic Christopher Castiglia, writing about captivity narratives, captures something I think is also essential to amatory fiction, sentimental and sensational fiction, genre Romance, and other female-authored genres that are centered on experiences of women:

As it evolved from a religious document of the seventeenth to a feminist plot of the twentieth century, the captivity narrative allowed women authors to create a symbolic economy through which to express dissatisfaction with the roles traditionally offered white women in America, and to reimagine those roles and the narratives that normalize them, giving rise ultimately to a new female subject and to the female audience on which she relies.

Take Julia Livia Rufa, for example, who, upon capture, laments that “[f]or the first time in her life . . . her status meant nothing,” and therefore, she must learn to embrace and recognize a different type of value for herself, one based on her individual accomplishments and characteristics, rather than the circumstances of her birth. Or, as an even more drastic case, Lara from Elizabeth Vaughan’s Warprize, who is given by her brother – the king of her people — as tribute (warprize) to a tribal warlord with whom they are at war, in exchange for peace. Lara, a trained healer, has been told by her brother that she is going to be a slave to the warlord, and when he carries her away to his people, she is convinced that she will be raped and punished as the warlord’s property. She is no longer called by her own name, but only “warprize,” and she is guarded everywhere she goes and prohibited from taking any food or drink from someone other than Keir.

What Lara does not know, until somewhat late in the novel, is that the difference between being a warprize and a slave is vast:

“Lara, a true warprize is a rare thing. We value them, for our people have found that the warprize brings a new way of thinking, of doing things. It makes us better, stronger, when we are exposed to new ways and new ideas. You cannot fake a true warprize, nor pick one, nor force one. They happen maybe once in five generations, and we see it as a benediction from the elements themselves, even for the upheaval that they bring.”

“Our people started as tribes, tribes based on our totem animals. Keir is of the Cat; Simus is of the Hawk, as am I. There was a time when the tribes fought among themselves. It was the first warprize, long ago, that created that change, that united the tribes.”

But because we experience most of the novel through Lara’s eyes, we see her confusion over the care Keir’s people take of her, and the protections she must have as such a valuable person in the tribe. Essentially, she represents the tribe’s future, because she brings more diversity to the group and therefore change: “‘Your presence in our camp is a gift to your people and our people, and we acknowledge that gift.'” She wears bracelets that she assumes are symbols of her slavery, wondering initially where the chains are, even though the bracelets are gifts from Keir, symbolic of their prospective union. Also note that her influence is not based in her ability to have a child, but rather in the change she represents through the difference perspectives she brings to the tribe. At the same time, her perspective does not dominate or colonize; rather, the mixture of new and traditional creates a kind of synergistic cultural effect, a transformative impulse that will create something more inclusive, more diverse, and more resilient.

Lara, however, interprets these gestures of respect as indications of her status as chattel, and finds herself continuously baffled by Keir’s unwillingness to sexually claim her. Once Keir finds out that she is a virgin, and that her own cultural customs value chastity for both men and women (which his own tribe perceives to be completely backward), he decides to wait until he can win her trust and affection. But because there is no discussion of this – nor does Keir know what Lara’s brother told her – he believes that she understands her position among his people, while she alternately lives in fear that he will take her by force and wonders if he is not satisfied with her (thus making her fail in her duty to her own people, as well as Keir’s).

In some ways, Warprize is closest to some of the North American captivity narratives, especially those featuring nations of the Iroquois confederacy, where a captive could be adopted to replace a fallen tribal member, receiving all the respect and goods that individual had in life. The Firelanders, as Keir’s people are called, are perceived as uncivilized by the Xy, Lara’s people. In fact, the first Firelander she sees is a black-skinned man, and she initially thinks of the myths she has heard, that the Firelanders are “blue, red, and black, and belch fire from their mouths.” The racial diversity of the Firelanders (although the book does not strictly identify these differences as racial) is fully normalized among the Firelanders, but not the Xy.

Lara, like many women who serve as the subjects of North American captivity narratives, possesses an insider-outsider status among her own people. She is a princess, and therefore socially privileged, but she is also a healer by choice, something her family frowns on, and which makes her almost a pariah to some of the royal family (especially her brother). And while she has more freedom among the Firelanders, life is also quite difficult, because in addition to the complex politics in such a diverse confederacy of now-united tribes, there are also ongoing attacks from the Xy, despite the formal treaty. The triumph of love between Keir and Lara is not a victory for the Firelanders, whose need to evolve and thrive is constantly challenged by natural and man-made enemies. Still, it is the strength of the bond between Keir and Lara, and the promise of a better future, that grounds the Firelanders and the series as a whole, engaging the reader’s hope for a better way of life, one that is more egalitarian and inclusive.

In each of the books I’ve discussed here, there is also an element of force that precipitates the necessary change for the heroine. On one level, there is a violation of her person (in Warlord, it is more Lara’s brother who fills that role, but still a male figure). Change, in other words, is preceded by violence, and in each case, the reader is in almost as much suspense as the heroine as to nature of her new circumstances, inviting the reader to break — even temporarily — with her own expectations as she follows the journey of the heroine.

Next week, as I move on to some of the books I’m classifying as Extreme Romance, I want to return to these themes of force and cultural hybridity, but in less direct, less literal ways.

In the meantime, it would be great if you could share any romantic captivity stories that did or did not work for you as idealized narratives of social change, represented by the couple’s romantic union and happiness.





isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!


  1. DB Cooper
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 07:38:10

    @Janet : great articles as always. I regret that the realities of life kept me from commenting on the last one too. You always get the mental cogs turning a bit.

    And of course, I always want to ramble and ask. :) I tend to believe that these stories “need” to have that white-anglo-traditional setting (and character), not only to set up the contrast but to build a sense of familiarity to ease the reader in–doubly so if the book is to be subversive in anyways. Of course, I don’t think this is really news either, nor does the choice need to be intentional–it’s almost reflex (ingrained tradition perhaps?) that a setup should start that way.

    Heck, even looking back at my description, it’s obvious it takes a white-anglo-normative stance of “this is how I picture most of the writing, so this is how I’ll address it.” It does make me wonder if (whether right or wrong), this why romance “of color” finds a harder time breaking into the mainstream. Is there a sense for much of the audience that they’re going from an unfamiliar place to an unknown place, and so they’re not sure what to learn or sympathize with?

    Or, in back to my original thought, what happens when the author removes familiarity from either culture. Even in the examples here, Rome and the Visigoths are both historical parties–they’re subject to both study and “romantic reinterpretation” to fit the modern audience. In Warprize, as you mentioned, it’s very close to models we already know. And in the case where both societies can be made up, BOTH seem to show traits that are perhaps western-normative (what seems to me as an old world, patriarchal, virginity is prized setting, and a more egalitarian, in someways pragmatic-philosophical “enlightenment” that many in western society might hope we could reach).

    Actually, I think it’s not only captivity narratives feeding into romance this way, but also into Star Trek episodes, or really any speculative or science fiction where the “distance” from a familiar time and space allows the audience to question two familiar and opposing camps with less guilt. To that end, really, have you (or anyone else hear) read a romance with two foreign, non-western-normative cultures coming together?

  2. Laura Vivanco
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 10:06:52

    I think that the genre as it has developed in America, at least […] is reflective of American and British cultural and historical (patriarchal) norms. Reading Merrian Weymouth’s fascinating post on captivity and the history of Australia reinforced my perception of genre Romance as very much an Anglo-American invention, even as it draws on a rich and long history of literary and cultural influences.

    What do you mean by “Anglo-American”? That may seem like a silly question, but I’m not sure if “Anglo” here means “American, English language” or means “joint UK-US.”

    My impression is that romance has developed differently in the UK and US, even though romances by British Mills & Boon authors, as well as by other British authors such as Heyer and Cartland, have made their way across the Atlantic. So I tend to see the modern romance genre as defined by the Romance Writers of American as primarily American (albeit I’d say that Mills & Boon were publishing “genre romance” in the UK from perhaps the 1930s), and a somewhat different thing from UK “romantic fiction.”

  3. Sahara
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 13:17:58

    Kylie Scott’s Skin features a post-apocalyptic forced seduction narrative where the heroine literally gives herself up for the good of her surviving group.

  4. Aisha
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 13:29:06

    First, thanks, your essays give me something different to think about every week or so – it helps to clear out the cobwebs :).
    Moving on, I think (but of course I am no expert) that most genre novels, especially but not only the sheik novels, perpetuate stereotypical othering, and reinforce and reify ‘western’ norms. I suspect that Reid’s treatment is rare in its attempt to be, and significant in its relative success at achieving, a more even-handed portrayal.

    I have two other issues: you say that “they can also be aspirational, in the sense of challenging social norms of patriarchy, cultural hierarchies, and autonomy/authority based on social status.” In your analysis, I assume you are implyiing that these aspirations are for the writers own society and not the ‘other’ society being depicted in the novel? If my assumption is correct, than this is problematic to me since the fictionalised other society (which, in the case of sheik stories at least, has recognisable counterparts in the real world) is simply a convenient backdrop against which to play out social tensions in the writers ‘western’ society and has little or no inherent value – like a means to an end rather than an end in itself in Kantian terms. If I am wrong in this and the aspirations are for the fictionalised other society than that is possibly worse – both insulting and arrogant.

    Second, and this is a small quibble,you write “cultural diversity and hybridization are viewed as positive values (another way in which I see Romance rooted in an Anglo-American cultural context)” – the implication here is that valuing cultural diversity and hybridisation is inherently Anglo-American (which I understood to refer to the US and UK, notwithstanding @Laura Vivanco‘s question). I don’t think that it is exclusive to those “western” societies in the first place, and second, it is not, in my opinion, a predisposition shared by large segments of the population in those societies.

    Last, @DB Cooper: “I tend to believe that these stories “need” to have that white-anglo-traditional setting (and character), not only to set up the contrast but to build a sense of familiarity to ease the reader in–doubly so if the book is to be subversive in anyways” err – the assumption here seems to be that all readers are the same, or am I misreading this? I understand the point you are making to be that a reader needs something/someone to relate to, but readers are diverse, so what is a point of intersection for some (or even the majority) can be a point of (sometimes extreme) disagreement for others.
    With regard to your question about non-‘western’ romance in which both protagonists are foreign (to you I assume), I believe that Harlequin M&B has launched an imprint in India, and has made a preliminary attempt (running a short story competition) in South Africa. Also in SA there is a homegrown (I think) category romance imprint called Sapphire Press. More well-known perhaps would be Vikas Swarup’s Q&A (better known as Slumdog Millionnaire) – not a romance but with strong romantic elements. Another, off the top of my head, but I’m not sure how well-known he is, is Imraan Coovadia’s Green-Eyed Thieves (he also wrote The Wedding whichI haven’t read).

  5. Molly O'Keefe
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 13:38:12

    Great thought-provoking essay, as usual. I am reminded I need to re-read Warprize, which is wonderful – BUT NOW I’VE GOT THAT ERASURE SONG IN MY HEAD!!!!

  6. Janet/Robin
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 14:20:30

    @DB Cooper: I don’t think these novels *need* to replicate dominant cultural norms; I just think they often do replicate these norms because of the way they draw on particular literary and cultural histories and narratives.

    @Laura Vivanco: I really meant British + American and Anglicized American at once, but it’s true that I was trying to compact too much in that sentence. I was thinking about how Regis locates Romance beginning with Richardson, sort of a quintessential English novelist (and all the cultural baggage that comes with), and I tend to point to Hull (again, not only British, but colonial British), and then the IMO dominance of the American-as-filtered-through-colonial-settlement-of-US perspective of the genre. NOT that the genre is limited to this mindset or that it can’t evolve and diversify beyond it, or can’t/hasn’t subverted it, transformed it, etc. — just that I think the notions of culture, class, political structure, etc. in a lot of genre Romance are very much influenced by British/American (post-Englightenment) norms.

    @Sahara: Thanks for that!

    @Aisha: In your analysis, I assume you are implyiing that these aspirations are for the writers own society and not the ‘other’ society being depicted in the novel?

    I was really referring to the genre as a whole and to its protagonists. I was thinking, for example, of the way some historical heroines are basically portrayed as 21st century middle class women from a Western cultural standard, rather than fully drawn within their time and particular social, cultural, political, economic, etc. circumstances. Also, one of the points Merrian made in her post is that women transported as convicts to the territories now known as Australia would not make good Romance heroines, because they really didn’t have much personal agency or political/economic/social standing. And yet, I know of at least one Romance novel — Candice Proctor’s Night In Eden — that features a female convict in New South Wales. That, IMO, is aspirational, in the sense that she ends up happy, in love, and free, something probably quite unlikely in real life.

    the implication here is that valuing cultural diversity and hybridisation is inherently Anglo-American

    The point I was trying to make there is that there is a certain vision of cultural diversity that exists as a cultural ideal — especially in America — that is NOT a universal social ideal. In other words, I’m pushing against the idea that cultural hybridization is viewed as a universal cultural good, when, in fact, it’s often been a function of the British and American colonial mindsets, and therefore imposed as a feature of cultural imperialism and political domination. At the same time cultural hybridization and racial miscegenation can also be read as culturally subversive, at least (and maybe especially?) in an Anglicized American context. But I definitely would argue that it’s a defining feature of American national identity (whether it’s individually accepted and practiced or not is another question, and the tensions between the concept of a national identity and a nation as a political construct, for example, are really complex and multi-layered), from the self-created image of the US as a “melting pot” to the “E pluribus unum” language on the US Seal, etc.

    @Molly O’Keefe: And, thus, my work here is done. ;D

    Also, this post got me re-reading and re-thinking about Warprize and about what a great job I think Vaughan did of really complicating the typical us v them, civilized v. savage dichotomies in her book. At first, the reader is tempted to see the Firelanders within certain tribal traditions, I think, but the way Vaughan shifts perspective to make them the central cultural perspective in the novel, the more I think she’s really playing with and challenging all sorts of stereotypes and notions of cultural identity and dominance. I was also thinking about Bujold’s The Sharing Knife, but since it’s not strictly Romance, I decided against including it in my post.

  7. hapax
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 14:25:54

    I cannot say how much I love this series. It is always thought-provoking and makes me see the genre with fresh eyes. And (this is not a minor point, believe me), while enduring my colleagues sniggers about the time I “waste” on “smut blogs” (I admit, the covers and ads don’t help), it’s wonderful to pull out a sentence like

    But given the way women socialized within a Western, patriarchal, primarily white paradigm often have simultaneous positions of privilege and marginalization, I think the transcultural space so often created in these types of Romance narratives is a logical, but not unproblematic, extension of that insider-outsider tension.

    and not only explain it, but *expound* upon it.

    To wit, this afternoon’s conversation in the break room swirled around the “secret baby” trope, and how it so often involved transgressing cultural or (most often) class boundaries. Although the set-up is nearly the opposite of captivity — and the separation is rarely precipitated by force, instead usually by deception or culturally-derived misunderstandings — the way that these stories demand a resolution with reconciliation and *literal* “hybridization” in the acceptance and glorification of the trope-naming child, also seems to me to be a good example of an “idealized narrative of social change.”

  8. carmen webster buxton
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 15:35:38

    I enjoyed WARPRIZE but I did have some problems with the cluelessness of the heroine. Also, the fact that the more war-like Firelanders seemed to be a tribe and yet they had people of different races was never explained to my satisfaction. But I liked the idea that what made Lara happy was finally being valued for herself, which I think is probably not an unusual trope in captive romances. Decades ago (I won’t say how many!) I read Alan E. Nourse’s RAIDERS FROM THE RINGS which was set in a future where space travel made men unable to sire daughters, so of course “Spacers” had to kidnap girls from earth! Amazingly, every single woman came to empathize with their captors and stayed willingly in space.

  9. Laura Vivanco
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 15:47:18


    I think the notions of culture, class, political structure, etc. in a lot of genre Romance are very much influenced by British/American (post-Englightenment) norms

    I can see what you’re getting at re Richardson and other British authors having an impact on the modern US romance but it seems to me that (a) notions of culture, class etc have changed a lot over the centuries and (b) many of these things have been and/or are now very different in the UK and US. For example, the political structure in the UK involves a monarch as head of state (who holds the title ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’), an unelected upper house and an written constitution. To me that seems a very different political structure to the one you have in the US.

  10. Aisha
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 16:56:33

    @DB Cooper: I forgot tha obvious one – Jeannie Lin.

    @Robin/Janet: thanks for explaining further.

    @Laura Vivanco: I think your point in (a) harks (sorry, it’s late and I can’t think of another word) back to my question last week about how the social norms referred to in this series of posts are constituted. With (b) however, I don’t think the political differences are that extreme in practice even if they appear to be so on paper. Elizabeth is largely a figurehead (and a drain on the fiscus, but that’s another story), political power resides in the Commons which is elected, and even lacking a Constitution, there is a set of laws and principles that serve their function as a substitute. I don’t disagree with your point though, just the example.

  11. Laura Vivanco
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 17:38:06


    I don’t think the political differences are that extreme in practice even if they appear to be so on paper

    Yes, to some extent, but in others I think they can be significant. The way the US political system was set up with checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government does seem to make the President of the US strangely powerless at times on the domestic stage compared to a British Prime Minister. Not that that’s necessarily reflected in romances, but there are other issues which do appear to be. I’m thinking in particular of the gun control controversy in the US, which seems to revolve around interpreting the constitutional right to bear arms, whereas in the UK (a) we don’t have a constitution (the equivalent, possibly, would be debates about how to interpret parts of the European Convention on Human Rights) and (b) the culture is significantly different, so we have very strong gun control laws. I see that reflected in romances: in US romances soldiers, cops and cowboys are common but I don’t see many UK romances featuring squaddies, bobbies and farm workers. Having a National Health Service which is free at the point of delivery makes a difference to some storylines and affects the popularity of medical romances.

    I suspect there are also likely to be differences in the texts taught in schools, and thus in the texts which would have the strongest influence on romance authors. I can only speculate about that, though, since I’m not a romance author and don’t know enough about the teaching of English in the UK and US. What I do know is that romances written by US authors feel to me as though they come from a significantly different culture from the one in which UK romances are produced. So I wonder if sometimes, even though UK and US romances may seem to be producing similar captivity narratives, they actually have different resonances for UK and US readers and are the product of a somewhat different range of cultural and textual influences. As I said, though, that’s just speculation on my part.

  12. Aisha
    Apr 23, 2013 @ 23:25:26

    eish I should not try to comment when I am in bed, exhausted. Sorry :(
    @Laura Vivanco: Another clear difference, also related to your point, is the fact that the US has not ratified the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, with the attendant obligations this places on respective states, while the UK has. I also think that besides (likely) having different textual references, there are also different approaches to pedagogy in the two contexts, which again is likely to impact on the tone and feel/affect/emotional resonance, if not necessarily the content, of books.

  13. Janet/Robin
    Apr 24, 2013 @ 02:45:51

    @Laura Vivanco: I think there are a number of ways of approaching this question, but I’m going to start with Lori Merish’s argument in Sentimental Materialism, because I think she draws a nice straight line from Richardson through the Enlightenment philosophers in a way that links patriarchy, romantic love, and colonialism in a way that’s directly relevant to the *ideological* foundations of genre Romance. Not that every single text will reflect these issues in the exact same way (which is not what I am arguing), just that the cultural space out of which genre Romance blossomed is one that is explicitly circumscribed by a transatlantically shared set of social norms (especially as they are historically grounded), which are still being contemplated, repeated, and echoed within the genre:

    In “consensual” marriage animated by love, according to writers as diverse as Kant and Richardson, women’s natural subjugation would be magically transmuted into marital “equality.”

    It is important to remember that the structure of desire, described above, in which romantic love recasts male proprietary authority over women, is a specific, (liberal) male fantasy of political desire and agency: in the Scottish model, it both promotes a felt sense of proprietary power and manages a formative male identification with women and with “feminine” dependency. The proprietary structure of romantic love is made explicit in the pervasive trope of sentimental romance in the literature of colonization: as Peter Hulme and Mary Louise Pratt have pointed out, colonial narratives of interracial love form a crucial part of imperial mythology, reconfiguring relations of colonial domination as reciprocal relations of willing “consent.” Importantly, the indigenous figure in these colonial romances is almost always a woman, a convention that illuminates the dynamic of seduction – the interrelation of dependency and equality, domination and respect – characteristic of feminine consent within “civilized” heterosexual relations.

    On a more basic level, take your point about the differences between monarchy and constitutional democracy. Among the bajillion historical Romances set in England, for example, so many are preoccupied with precisely this difference and how it impacts the central love relationship, which is so often constructed as a relationship that in some way violates the social rules of the aristocracy (and therefore seems to critique the monarchical tradition), even as many of these historical Romances reward the lovers with aristocratic privilege. It’s like they advocate love as a meritocratic institution with aristocratic rewards.

  14. Laura Vivanco
    Apr 24, 2013 @ 04:38:42

    @Janet/Robin: re

    It is important to remember that the structure of desire, described above, in which romantic love recasts male proprietary authority over women, is a specific, (liberal) male fantasy of political desire and agency

    I’m reminded of a fifteenth-century Spanish sentimental romance, Diego de San Pedro’s Cárcel de amor, which was translated into English and read at the court of Henry VIII (see the first article in this journal for more details) and is about politics and love. The man (Leriano) is in a “Prison of Love” but the woman (Laureola) is literally imprisoned as a result of his love. So there’s equality inasmuch as both the man and the woman are made captives, but the man’s captive status is metaphorical/emotional and the woman’s isn’t. It’s in the courtly love tradition, in which the man is often made out to be the captive/servant of the woman or of love. Of course, it was generally stated that courtly love could not exist within marriage, because in marriage the man’s domination of the woman is clear.

    So it seems to me that there’s quite a long cultural tradition in which love is seen as a form of captivity and/or a force which upsets the usual political power structure. I suspect we can still see a hang over from the courtly love tradition when a man kneels before a woman to propose marriage, and it exists alongside remnants of the patriarchal system of marriage as a transfer of property between men, as when that same woman is later “given away” by her father.

    links patriarchy, romantic love, and colonialism in a way that’s directly relevant to the *ideological* foundations of genre Romance

    “Colonialism” tends to make my mind jump to India, so although I’m probably heading off at yet another tangent, I thought I’d mention Hsu-Ming Teo’s essay about romances set during the Raj. In this context, though, captivity narratives appear to be in the older “chivalric romance” tradition, as distinct from the “genre Romance” being developed by women:

    The obliteration of Oriental ideas of sexuality and gender relations, and, indeed, of Orientals themselves, from the English romance novel in order to achieve resolution, is characteristic of another genre which prefigured and overlapped with the Anglo-Indian romance: Mutiny fiction, largely produced between the 1860s to the 1890s. Mutiny fiction was set around the events of the 1857 Indian uprising. It focused on the epic or heroic deeds of English men and the atrocities experienced by women, and romance was subordinated to these themes. English women in Mutiny fiction were generally passive objects to be venerated, victimized, and rescued by men of action. Mutiny fiction therefore remained within the classical model of masculine chivalric romance, with its emphasis on knightly deeds, battle, and quests, while women served as the excuse for adventure and the reward for masculine success. There was little genuine interest in the developing relationship between men and women.

  15. Sunita
    Apr 24, 2013 @ 08:19:50

    @Laura Vivanco: There’s way more going on in your conversation than I have the expertise to address, but I wanted to make a few points.

    First, there are plenty of studies on British (and French) captivity narratives that parallel the narratives Robin has been discussing in her posts. The British narratives, quite a few of which are written by women, encompass Barbary Coast narratives, Orientalist harem narratives, and colonial (mostly Raj) narratives. These predate Pamela. Examples of this research are here and here.

    Second, while I don’t dispute Hsu-Ming Teo’s research on Raj romances, it excludes books that were written before 1890, and it reproduces the common misconception that British women weren’t present or important in India before the mid-18th century. More importantly, since it doesn’t engage research on the captivity narratives that were written about India (some of which were quite gendered even when they were about male captives), it doesn’t directly address this discussion.

    Third, if you’re going to cite the differences between the US and UK political systems to show why the narratives are not the same, you need to complete the comparison with the institutional similarities (and show why those aren’t important). Off the top of my head: a shared jurisprudential tradition of common law, steady (albeit limited) expansion of democratic rights over the course of the 19th century, and industrial capitalism whose expansion was facilitated by political policy and built on the unfree and/or coerced labor of those who were excluded from the decision making. And one more: in terms of immigration to the US, the largest immigrant sending country throughout the 19th century and into the 20thC was the UK. Any discussion arguing separation between US and UK cultures needs to take account of that.

  16. Laura Vivanco
    Apr 24, 2013 @ 09:41:56


    There’s way more going on in your conversation than I have the expertise to address

    I’m well aware I don’t have the expertise to address most of this either, and I know I have less expertise than either Janet or you in this area.

    I think it’s very clear that there are contemporary romance novels featuring captivity (usually of the heroine by the hero). What I’m less clear about is the degree of influence which Janet thinks US captivity narratives have had on the current romance genre. It seems to me that if, for example, there are earlier captivity narratives than the US ones Janet discussed in an earlier post (and according to the Hoeveler article to which you linked there were, since “Barbary captivity narratives […] had been published in England since the 1580s” (52)), then those too might arguably have played a role, so that’s why I brought up the idea of captivity in sentimental romance and courtly love. I started off my academic life as a hispano-medievalist so I’m more likely to know of 15th-century Castilian texts than then more relevant ones discussed in Hoeveler’s article.

    I raised the question of UK/US differences because it seemed to me that if they are significant, that raises questions about whether people in the UK were/are

    (a) less exposed to US captivity narratives and more exposed to UK captivity narratives, which again would presumably affect the degree of influence one could ascribe to US captivity narratives


    (b) might have read them differently due to their different cultural context. For example, Hoeveler argues that

    the female captivity narrative (fact or fiction) participated in a larger ideological and cultural project: making the world safe for British Christians who happened to find themselves traveling to foreign ports, that is, engaged in imperialistic enterprises that were by definition risky business. (53)

  17. Janet/Robin
    Apr 24, 2013 @ 13:26:42

    @Laura Vivanco: I’m not denying that there are material differences between the US and the UK (and even within both entities); clearly there are, and they will manifest in varying ways. Nor is it just the captivity trope that makes me see the genre the way I do. It’s partly the work of scholars like Merish and Cathy Davidson and others, the mutually enmeshed histories of the UK and the US, the related development of philosophical and ideological paradigms (and the way those cross back and forth), patterns of immigration, as Sunita mentioned, similar histories of colonialism and patriarchy (predicated on similar cultural assumptions), the profound dominance of the UK and the US as settings/narrative spaces for the genre, and other things.

  18. Aisha
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 07:14:58

    @Janet/Robin (and @Sunita): I know its late and the discussion may be considered closed, but I want to respond to this on two levels. First, I think one way to look at Laura Vivanco’s comment on alternative points of reference of captivity narratives is that its not about those narratives of captivity as such, but that she is trying to point out other examples from outside the Anglo-American tradition whose influence may be short-changed in this analysis. The larger point, for me, is that there is a predisposition in ‘western’ scholarship that tends to subordinate and sometimes ignore other types and sources of knowledge, which may be less accessable but is nevertheless valuable.

    Second, yes, no doubt there is a shared Anglo-American history, and this allows for a certain lavel of commonality that continues today (and that is made explicit in, for example, ‘the special relationship’ that began with Thatcher and Reagan), but there are also very significant differences and these are not just material. Take Sunita’s point about migration for instance – many migrants (especially those that arrived in later waves of in-migration to the US from the UK) were people who felt dispossessed (economically, religiously, politically, etc) in their home country and this often leads to a self-identity that is determined in opposition to the country of origin (more recently, Cuban migrants to the US are probably the clearest illustration of this). Also, historically, one major and obvious difference is that Britain was a colonial power, while America was colonised (and American neo-imperialism might have similarities but it isn’t colonialism). This is I think a fundamental difference that cannot be ignored (but perhaps I am overemphasising it as one of the previously colonised?). Bringing it to the current era, I think that there are fundamental ideological and social differences. I can think of a couple examples immediately, that I hope are not too opaque – 1)the London Riots – social unrest enacted by young people OF ALL RACES in protest against proposed neo-liberal reforms; 2)socialism might not be practiced in either context but it is not the almost taboo ideology in the UK that it is in the US – the Cold War is not that far in the past and it resulted in pretty different trajectories for each country (even though the US was by and large supported by the UK, and of course the ‘Washington Consensus’ was driven as much by Thatcher as by Reagan); 3)in terms of regional integration, the UK is far more integrated and open than I think the US would even consider being (EU as opposed to NAFTA); 4)in terms of global governance and willingness to subject their sovereignty and autonomy to multilateral institutions, there really is no comparison.

    And now for a little contradiction :). I think it was Saskia Sassen who first used the term ‘global cities’ to describe particular geographical spaces that are fundamentally linked into global networks, and one aspect of her work around this (if I’m remembering correctly) was that the inhabitants of these global cities had more in common with people living in other global cities than with their co-nationals. This also links to ideas of global worker solidarity in the Marxist tradition, and both are examples of discourses that would see more similarities than differences across national boundaries for particular sub-groups (leaving aside works on cultural globalisation that equate it with generalised cultural homogenisation).

    Last point, is it hybridisation or assimilation that is idealised (or becoming so)? I know that the discourse of assimilation is far more explicit in (continental) Europe (and further that the ‘Fortress’ appellation is not strictly applicable to the US as yet), but there are definite indications of it and these are maybe growing?

  19. Aisha
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 07:16:17

    err i keep trying to post a comment and it seems to get eaten up or something….

  20. Aisha
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 08:57:53

    @Aisha: Sorry corrections that I wanted to edit in but couldn’t – the special relationship was referred to by Churchill, but arguably strengthened under Thatcher. And Britain’s membership in the EU may be questioned periodically but it still exists (and of course both are members of the WTO and negotiate bi and multilateral trade agreements that include some concessions but, well, that’s pretty much necessary for participation in world trade).

  21. Sunita
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 12:00:32


    and that is made explicit in, for example, ‘the special relationship’ that began with Thatcher and Reagan), …[from later comment] the special relationship was referred to by Churchill, but arguably strengthened under Thatcher.

    It goes back much further than that. Churchill made the phrase famous in the modern era, but it was used in the 19th century. Britain and the US have been politically, economically, and socially intertwined throughout the latter’s history, and their respective literatures reflect this.

    many migrants (especially those that arrived in later waves of in-migration to the US from the UK) were people who felt dispossessed (economically, religiously, politically, etc) in their home country and this often leads to a self-identity that is determined in opposition to the country of origin.

    I’m not sure which later waves of in-migration you’re talking about, but apart from the earliest settlers (early 17thC) and *possibly* the wave of migration that included the Scots of the mid-18thC, there are no British immigrant waves that are dominated by people who felt dispossessed, unless you are using that term *extremely* broadly. Irish migration patterns are a bit different, especially after 1840, but those are a separate category of study in the scholarly literature. Bailyn’s work on how migration to the US is part of a greater pattern of European migration focuses on 18thC data, but it holds for the 19thC as well, and all good analyses of migration decision-making and patterns take into account not only the factors that caused migrants to leave, but also the forces drawing them to their chosen destinations. I’ve been researching and teaching US immigration history and politics for well over a decade, and I simply haven’t seen many examples of the attitudes you are describing. To the contrary, British heritage among Americans is regularly celebrated and held up as superior to other immigrant histories.

  22. Aisha
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 13:02:57

    @Sunita: “It goes back much further than that” – Yes, I know. My point in referring to this was to acknowledge that there is strong basis for the “Anglo-American” pairing, irrespective of when the phrase was first used (although there is some discussion around its perceived importance – see for example).

    Re migration, I guess I was using it extremely broadly, and including Irish migration – apologies if I misrepresented this. My own focus is on African migration and this probably colours my thinking on migration in all contexts, which is not advisable. And of course I recognise the importance of both push and pull factors in migration choices and patterns, but I did not think it was necessary to my point to deal with the pull factors in this case (I guess I assumed they were pretty obvious – a perception of the destination country as a land of opportunity, expectations of linguistic and cultural familiarity, previously established migration routes, relative openness to migrants, etc).

  23. Sunita
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 14:10:31

    @Aisha: I apologize, I wasn’t clear in my previous comment. I was actually thinking of the pull factors from the point of view of the receiving country, that is, why does the country want to encourage migration, either in general or of specific groups. In the case of the US, you have a young republic that has more land than people, and this creates incentives for favored groups like the British that go beyond the usual land of opportunity, etc. But now we are way off the topic that Robin/Janet was engaging, so I’ll stop here!

  24. Aisha
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 15:18:32

    @Sunita: but I do so love these tangents. Nevermind, I’ll be good :)

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