All Commentary
Thursday, February 13, 2014

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 ar