Posted in I Choose "I Do"

I Choose “I Do”: Affective Individualism and Agency in romance from Jane Austen to Nora Roberts

So a discussion on Twitter today, started by the lovely and disgustingly talented Sarah Maclean about the perceptions and myths surrounding romance novels prompted me to mention that my senior thesis was all about how romance novels have helped women. As requested I’m posting that paper here (in 4 parts because it’s 9,000 words  – Bibliography at the end).

A bit of background first. My senior Capstone class was entitled “Kinky Jane – The Oppositional Austen in Criticism and Culture.” In the class, we discussed many of the ways that Jane Austen was either subversive and critical during her own time (her own brothers were the ones who created the goody-two-shoes image of her in the forward of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey), as well as how literary critics and popular culture continue to use her works for social commentary. For an aspiring romance novelist (working on book 5, none published -yet), I had to look at how my idol started the genre that I love so much and how she used the idea of a woman choosing her marriage and created a gateway for the course of the marriage plot and romance novels to take.

Disclaimer: Please keep in mind this is horribly academic as I wrote it for a grade. Because I was limited to 30 double spaced pages, this only scratches the surface of the discussions that can be had on this subject. If you want much better (and wiser) discussions, check out the bibliography at the end of part 4.


In 2009, Americans spent $1.34 billion dollars on romance novels (RWA). Romance novels have evolved and adapted over the past 200 years as women have embraced the power to exert their own agency provided by a concept of affective individualism that grew out of the late eighteenth century. The beginning of this trend can be seen through Jane Austen and the characters in her novels. I plan to trace the evolution of the relationship between romance novels and agency from Austen, through Georgette Heyer, the “grandmother” of Regency romance, into the period of “bodice rippers” started by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I will end up in the current romance market, looking at Nora Roberts and Susan Elizabeth Phillips, the masters of the genre. These particular women serve as representatives of movements within both the romance genre and literature as a whole to transform female stories into vehicles of empowerment for readers and authors. Along with this discussion, I plan to examine the ways that the character archetypes Austen chose to exemplify in her heroes and heroines remain in evidence throughout this evolution that make it a cogent narrative of the genre.

Before getting into the discussion about the evolutionary tract of what is now known as “Genre Romance,” it is necessary to examine what made it possible. One of the main ideas to come out of Enlightenment and the eighteenth century was the concept of the value of the individual, independent from nuclear kinship structures. Social historian Lawrence Stone provides two definitions of individualism in the eighteenth century. First, he describes it as “a growing introspection and interest in the individual personality” (Stone 151). The second definition is “a demand for personal autonomy and a corresponding respect for the individual’s right to privacy, to self-expression, and to the free exercise of his will within limits set by the need for social cohesion” (Stone 151). The latter definition is most applicable within the context of the term “affective individualism.” Within the discourse of sociology, “affective individualism” is used to refer to the shift in courtship practices that accompanied the industrial revolution, favoring love matches over dynastic ones (Stone 151). “Affective individualism” is one of the first pieces of evidence that indicate women were beginning to gain some agency over their lives. Prior to the eighteenth century, if a woman were to marry, it would likely be to a man of her parents’ choosing. When the decision of choosing a mate began to shift into the hands of a female, it started the process for women to eventually gain autonomy both in and out of marriage.

This agency to choose one’s spouse resulted in the “companionate marriage,” which Pamela Regis defines as “one in which the chief end of a union is mutual comfort and support, including love, between spouses” (Regis 57). The companionate marriage was still a relatively new concept at the beginning to the nineteenth century when the romance novel came into being, but the genre quickly became the strongest proponent for this new adaptation. The growing Industrial Revolution was shifting not only economic definitions within society, but also social structures, leaving room for the fluidity of choice provided by companionate marriage to take hold. The idea of “affective individualism” opened the door for the romance novel, but companionate marriage laid the necessary foundation for it to take flight.

The concept of “affective individualism” in Austen’s time rose to prominence amidst warring discourses surrounding how hierarchies should be defined within the new societal structures that were emerging from the Industrial Revolution. According to Handler and Segal, “Wollstonecraft and Burke commonly believe that their view alone captures the ‘natural’ basis for hierarchy: for Burke, nature sides with ancestral inheritance, for Wollstonecraft, with individual merit” (Handler/Segal 703). The Burkean ideals represented the social norm going into the time in which Jane Austen was writing. Wollstonecraft represented the counter-culture that was beginning to favor the ability to earn prominence rather than being born into it, as illustrated by the glorification of the Duke of Wellington, formerly General Sir Arthur Wellesley. Within the nuances debate rests the advent of what we now see as the “romance novel.”

The Romance Writers of America (RWA) trade organization specifies that a “romance novel” must contain two elements. The first is a “central love story,” meaning that “the main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel” (RWA). Because this could be used to define many different novels, the RWA adds the contingent that the story must have “an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending” meaning “the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love” (RWA). Within these definitions, the RWA separates “romance novels” from “love stories.” Books like Gone With The Wind and Wuthering Heights meet the first criteria, but are lacking in the second; therefore they are “love stories” rather than “romance novels.” The novels written by nineteenth century authors such as Jane Austen meet both criteria and paved the way for the “romance novel” as we know it today.

Before delving into the discussion of the evolution of romance novels, it is important to understand the rhetoric surrounding the two major components of the novel: the hero and the heroine. For the purposes of this paper, I will be using the definitions of these characters set forth by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan. Wendell and Tan state that most romance novel heroes are “alpha” heroes. They explain that, “when we discuss ‘alpha hero,’ we’re talking about strong, dominating, confident men, often isolated, who hold a tortured, tender element within themselves that they rarely let anyone see” (Wendell/Tan 1281). Heroes who fit this description pepper the pages of novels from Austen to Roberts and their evolution and interactions with their heroines are key elements to the changes in romance novels.

To complement the alpha heroes, there must be an “alpha” heroine. “Beta” heroines are the “alphas’ ” more dependent counterparts from non-romance novels. According to Wendell and Tan, “the alpha heroine goes head-to-head with the hero, and in battle of one form or another, be it verbal, literal, or sexual, they come to a compromise that ultimately elevates them both. With the alpha heroine, love doesn’t just conquer all. Love kicks ass” (Wendell/Tan 1009). Granted, the alpha heroine has become decidedly more “alpha” in the past several decades, but she is still present in her most basic incarnation as early as Elizabeth Bennett.

The relationships between heroes and heroines are just as complicated as real life relationships. The dynamic growth of the central relationship of the novel allows both parties to reach their fullest potential. The romantic relationship of the romance novel differs from every other genre in that it is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Romance novelist Robyn Donald explains the appeal of the genre to women in particular, stating that, “This powerful man, confident in his standing and his masculinity, sure of himself, competent and trustworthy, discovers during the course of the romance that without the heroine he is no longer able to enjoy his life. He needs her” (Donald 83). From the very beginning, in Pride and Prejudice, the mutual compromise of the romantic relationship sets it apart. Elizabeth doesn’t just need Darcy and his money; he needs her to make him a better man. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship, dependent on the strength of both sides in order to be successful. They can survive separately, but are made better and more effective together. This key concept and the evolution of its depiction is what I want to focus on throughout the four major events in the literary history of the romance novel.


One thought on “I Choose “I Do”: Affective Individualism and Agency in romance from Jane Austen to Nora Roberts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s