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Economics with Romance

Sabrina Jeffries. How to Woo a Reluctant Lady. New York: Pocket Star Books, 2011.
Sherry Thomas. Not Quite a Husband. New York: Bantam Books, 2009.
Laura Lee Guhrke. Guilty Pleasures. New York: Avon Books, 2004.
Laura Kinsale. Midsummer Moon. Naperville: Sourcebooks, [1987] 2010.
Loretta Chase. Silk Is for Seduction. New York: Avon Books, 2011.
Michelle Styles. His Unsuitable Viscountess. New York: Harlequin, 2012.

Several earlier Book Value columns have drawn your attention to the economic content of various examples of “women’s fiction,” such as Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, Edna Ferber’s Emma McChesney stories, and novels by Jane Austen, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and Dorothy Whipple. Once, this column even explored a mid-century romance novel by Georgette Heyer. Clearly, love and money are preoccupations of mine.

But it seems appropriate, for a column running one day before Valentine’s Day, to speak a little more generally about the genre of romance fiction. And yes, I do mean the novels that everyone loves and no one admits to reading, the ones with covers that—back in my teenaged years—featured fiery red-headed heroines with improbably violet eyes, swooning dramatically against the inexplicably bare-chested hero as they stood, for no apparent reason, amid a thunderstorm on a windswept heath. Or what was probably a heath. Ohio didn’t have a lot of heaths, so I was guessing.

Laughable as the covers may sometimes be (and the romance novel review site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books has an entire category of posts dedicated to “cover snark”), the content of the modern-day romance novel is often remarkably supportive of issues important to readers of The Freeman—issues like entrepreneurship, the bourgeois virtues, and personal responsibility, in particular.

I have found that historical romance novels are most interested in thinking seriously about work. Romance novels set in contemporary society tend to see work as merely a part of the background. Of course the hero and heroine have jobs. Everyone does. Often, while the work is the excuse for bringing the hero and heroine into initial contact with each other, writers don’t explore their characters' feelings about work particularly deeply, nor do they show the hero or heroine actively working. 

But when set into historical context, writing about work can lead to debates over gender roles (“You get to have an interesting job and I have to learn to embroider? How is that fair?” or “Do you really expect that I’ll give up working when we get married?”), or about the mixed blessing of aristocratic privilege (“My father gambled away the family fortune, so I must work, but I have no skills!” or “I’d really like to be a writer/scientist/architect, but it is simply not done by people of my class.”), or about class and opportunity (“Yes, I stole your wallet, but I was fired from my job as a governess for ‘tempting’ the master of the house, and isn’t it better to steal than to be a prostitute?”). In other words, because of the deep conflicts over work throughout history, work in a historical romance novel can be a source of conflict between the hero and heroine. And romance novels thrive on conflict that keeps the lovers deliciously apart until they find a way to reach a happy ending.

Sabrina Jeffries’s How to Woo a Reluctant Lady pairs a Gothic novelist heroine with a barrister. Both characters are devoted to their work, and their romance cannot reach an acceptably happy conclusion until each realizes that about the other and learns to adjust their expectations. The Duke of Damerell in Laura Kinsale’s Midsummer Moon can only win the affections of the inventor Merlin Lambourne if he can learn to understand how seriously she takes her inventions, however dangerous or eccentric they may seem. Similarly, the doctor heroine of Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband must win her husband’s affection back by learning to appreciate the ways in which he—a mathematician and playwright—manages the house and estate so smoothly that she does not even notice the ways in which he makes her job possible.

In Laura Lee Guhrke’s Guilty Pleasures, the Duke of Tremore has a thorough understanding of the professional excellence of his assistant mosaicist, Daphne Wade. He tells her that “anyone with your skill at restoration is committed to a project years in advance. . . . Replacing you is impossible at this point.” The closeness fostered by his appreciation for her work is the spur for their romantic relationship, as he realizes that she is an unsubstitutable good in the rest of his life as well.

And in the most McCloskeyan of romance novels, Loretta Chase’s Silk Is for Seduction, the Duke of Clevedon must learn to appreciate and even participate in the bourgeois virtues of the dressmaker heroine, Marcelline Noirot. The duke forces her to acknowledge that her job “isn’t employment. It’s your vocation.” By the end of the book, they have gotten into business, and into bed, together.

Did you know that nearly 80 women were partners in British private banks between 1860 and 1906? Did you know that in the 1820s, the two highest-paid bankers in England were women? I didn’t. Not until I read that great economics text, Michelle Styles’s His Unsuitable Viscountess, in which one of those women is able to lend money and social capital to another woman to help her save her business and find her happy ending.

Again and again in these romances, appreciating a heroine’s occupation means appreciating the heroine. A heroine who is free to be herself in her working life is free to be herself in her romantic life.

I hear a lot of complaints about the lack of exactly this kind of positive representation of work and the bourgeois virtues in literature. The Book Value column is intended to serve as an extended response to those complaints. In these romance novels, we find the positive literary representations of work and innovation and entrepreneurship and the bourgeois virtues that we think are so scarce. Startling though it may seem, the literature written for the bourgeois defends the bourgeois. And these defenses have been here all along, in women’s fiction, in romance novels, in literature that is scorned for being too commercial, too common, and too bourgeois. These books are defending us. Maybe it’s time for us to return the favor and start defending them.

Sarah Skwire
Sarah Skwire

Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.