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romantic fiction

Clarissa, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Three Weeks, The Way of an Eagle

The antecedents of popular Romantic Fiction can be found in the Gothic romances of Sir Walter Scott, with their powerfully drawn heroes and villains and their complex and sympathetically drawn heroines, and in the eighteenth-century novels of manners, such as Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1748), which focused on a contest of wills between its eponymous heroine and her sexually attractive but ruthless seducer. The novels of Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice (1813), anatomized similar conflicts between men and women which ended, however, not with the heroine's death but with her marriage. By the mid-nineteenth century, novels such as Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) explored the complexities of sexual attraction and—in the characters of their respective heroes, Mr Rochester and Heathcliffe—provided archetypes for much that was to follow.

The early part of the twentieth century saw a burgeoning of popular romantic fiction. It was never explicitly sexual, although the novels of Ethel M. Dell (18811939) and Elinor Glyn offered a frisson of eroticism. In Glyn's best-known novel, Three Weeks (1907), for example, a naïve young Englishman learns about sexual pleasure from a mysterious woman who seduces him on a tiger skin in Venice. Dell's The Way of an Eagle (1912) was similarly exotic. Set on the North-West Frontier of India, it concerns the romance between a brigadier's daughter and a masterful but cold-blooded hero. The sado-masochistic element implicit in these novels is even stronger in Edith Maud Hull's The Sheik (1919), which became an international bestseller after it was filmed with Rudolf Valentino in the title role. The story concerns an English girl who is kidnapped and seduced by an Arab sheik, with whom she eventually falls in love and marries, after discovering that he is, in fact, a member of the British aristocracy. From the 1920s onward, romantic novels began to use more realistic settings (although exotic backgrounds remained popular), in which the heroine—frequently an impoverished, though well-bred, young woman—attained social advancement with love. Romances with a historical setting, such as the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer, also achieved a wide following. Bestsellers of the period include Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936) and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938), both of which were made into popular films. In more recent times, Dame Barbara Cartland (1901) has enjoyed great popular success with her romantic fiction, much of it also with a historical setting, and has written over 500 books.

Contemporary romantic fiction can be divided into several categories. These include the short, formulaic novels published by Mills and Boon and Robert Hale; their authors often write three or four books a year under different names and are unknown outside their own readership. Higher up the scale are the genre novels, published by mainstream publishers. These books have, on the whole, more original settings, as well as better characterization and plot development than the average Mills and Boon romance. Catherine Cookson, for example, has written many novels incorporating romantic plots into the realistic settings of her native North-East of England. Jean Plaidy (who also wrote as Philippa Carr and Victoria Holt) displayed an extensive knowledge of different historical periods in her books. In her ‘Wideacre’ books, Philippa Gregory writes for a younger readership who prefer a more sexually explicit narrative. A recent phenomenon in genre fiction is the ‘sex and shopping’ saga, of which the leading exponents are the writers Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz, Shirley Conran (1932), and Sally Beauman (1940).

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: John Rhode to Jack [Morris] Rosenthal Biography