Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Shameful Effects of Reading a Romance, 1760

Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Isabella reporting,

Eighteenth-century women enjoyed reading romances. Just like many of their romance-reading sisters today, they were often ridiculed for doing so.

But while the sighing, novel-reading miss was an easy target, there were also sterner critics who went much farther than simply dismissing romances as a waste of time. To them, reading romantic fiction corrupted virtuous women, and made them more susceptible to seduction and ruin. It's no surprise that the loudest voices were male, certain that female readers needed protecting because they did not possess the ability to read critically or to differentiate between fiction and reality.

Conduct books warned against the dangers of the roman d'amour. In the popular Manuel de la toilette & de la mode by Conrad Salomon Walther, published in 1771, the author claimed that romantic novels played to "the depravity of the reader." Not surprisingly, he disapproved of honest women reading such books: "There are books that one must not read in order to remain virtuous and out of respect for public opinion, which quite correctly esteems that a young woman should remain ignorant about certain things."

All of which explains the state of the young woman, left. Despite her noble intentions to higher learning indicated by the globe and scholarly books on the table, she has succumbed to reading a ::horrors:: romantic novel. Still open beside her, this book has reduced her to a near-swoon, flushed, limp, and spent, with her clothes in disarray. The book has debauched her as surely as a real lover might, here in the intimacy of her own bedchamber. Even her little dog in his brocade kennel seems exhausted by so much literary passion.

Of course this painting isn't a warning, but a sly exaggeration. It's a scene intended to titillate, not serve as a cautionary tale. The artist, Pierre-Antoine Baudoin, painted many such knowing pictures, and this was probably intended to amuse a worldly male patron. Either way, the message is still clear: romance novels are powerful stuff. But we knew that all along, didn't we?

Above: La Lecture, by Pierre-Antoine Baudoin, c. 1760. Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris.


Hels said...

The silliest line by the male critic was "reading romantic fiction corrupted virtuous women, and made them more susceptible to seduction and ruin". If there was any corruption to guard against, it was the male who seduced and ruined young women!!!

MC said...

By 1790 romantic novels took on a more sinister voice as young male characters, and female, fallen from grace or bereft of their lovers chose to commit suicide rather than go on. For a brief period clergy and churches viewed these novels as useful, edifying, and uplifting, until young people actually started emulating them and committing suicide.

This gets personal if you look around at your own local history. In my town there is a bridge called "Emily's Bridge." A covered bridge where Emily went to wait for her lover to carry her away. When he didn't show she hung herself on the bridge. In fact there is no record of a suicide on the bridge, so unlikely in fact, but this tale is widely accepted as truth because it conforms to the conventions of romance at the turn of the 19th century, when the bridge was built.

See: We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States Hardcover by Richard Bell

LynS said...

My husband had a psychology professor who said he refused to treat any woman in his private practice who watched soap operas. He felt it gave them unrealistic expectations of love and sex. He did not mention romance novels, but I wonder if he would feel the same about them.

MC said...

So.. as a reader of romance fiction this is what I want to know: why is the ideal unrealistic? I mean, why shouldn't we aspire to an ideal instead of settling for rude, loutish, boorish, behavior? Why do men get a pass because women's expectations are "unrealistic?"

That's like saying diplomatic and peaceful solutions to conflict between nations is unrealistic, given history, and therefore not something to be aspired to, or bothered with.

Miss Littlefield said...

Another example of the patriarchal society of the time trying to control women. Plus I think men were scared they could not live up to the image of men that these novels created. As the character of Jane Austen said in the movie Miss Austen Regrets, "The only way to get a man like Mr. Darcy is to make him up".

If any modern man objects against women reading romance novel: ask them if they read science fiction or fantasy, like Tolkien. I would to hear them explain why romance novels lead to "unrealistic expectations" of life but these novels do not.

Julia said...

This is a wonderful entry, and sparks a lot of interesting comments. My immediate thought at the "things young women should be ignorant of" was: "Yes, first of foremost: the stuff that her brothers, husband and sons get up to in the less genteel streets of the big cities". I think the man who call loudest for virtuous, guarded, innocent (literally: un-knowing) women are those who know exactly how bad men can get.

I had to think of Mr. Collins of course, who read Fordyces Sermons to his appalled cousins. Fordyce was a classic on the subject of novels: "any woman who can bear to read one (...) must be a prostitute in her heart" because those novels were filled with such filth, as he had been assured. Of course he had never touched them himself! I have to give him points for his opening line, though:

"The corruption of the age is a complaint with many men who contribute to increase it."

As for our modern romance novels: I've read good ones and good grief, I've read some horrible ones. What I find most worrying is that although they are written by women, they still often idealize passive, innocent women who never ever get to a point of having to admit own faults - whatever went wrong in their lives is of course the fault of evil men. That, or "strength" means being snarky, aggressive, self-righteous and _still_ having to be saved by big strong men.

Seriously, straight-forward porn worries me less.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Love the comments here! Many excellent points. When I came across this picture, I'd no idea it would spark so much interest as a blog. :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Julia, I'm going to have to reply to your comment. I HAVE to.

I enjoyed your comment with its references to Mr. Collins and Mr. Fordyce. I was, in fact, completely on board with you until I reached the last two paragraphs and your sweeping assumptions regarding modern romances and romance authors.

You do know that Loretta and I ARE romance writers, don't you? That we've both been writing historical romances for decades? That being Nerdy History Girls is a whole lot of fun for us, but that writing romance is What We Do?

I can't speak for an entire genre, or for all the books that have been written within it. Like you, I've read good romances, and I've read not-so-good ones. All I can truthfully (and safely, without having a complete meltdown) say is that I've never written the kind of heroine that you describe. Neither has Loretta.

I'd rather open this up to everyone up there who does read and enjoy romances. How would you reply to Julia's comments?

Elena Yatzeck said...

I think we're all good here! Julia says she's read good and bad ones, and the ones she doesn't like are the ones that reinforce the woman-as-victim thing. I personally can't get through that kind either, but that doesn't make me love Loretta or you any less. :-)

Elena Yatzeck said...

I mean, because that's not the kind you write! Doh!

Carey said...

Interesting discussion, and it just shows not a lot has changed. Similar things are often said of books like twilight and its effect on young women (ie creepy stalkerish Edward as the ideal male).

I have to admit at high school my friends and I would pass around mills and boon, Virginia Andrews books and many other romances. Our favourites were always the melodramatic tragic ones of course and the more fainting and evil predatory rich men the better. I don't think I ever aspired like those heroines though.

Looking back I don't think it did much damage, maybe because we were reading quite a wide range of styles. Even now I still enjoy the odd princess in the tower style romance despite, as long as it is well written. It's just escapism for me.

Annabeth said...

Why is it that people still believe women can't tell the difference between the heroes in a romance and real-live men in reality? Reading Twilight doesn't make you want to marry a vampire. No one thinks the people who read mysteries are planning to commit murder. So why think that women who read romances are so stupid that they need protecting like this?

Jill Wilson said...

You ladies don't need defending! Your books are already totally awesome the way they are.

eenayray said...

I used to make fun of the romance genre because the women always seemed incapable of resisting the man (whether a rake, a bad boy, the mean boss...whatever). I hated to read lines where the woman was treated poorly by the supposed hero, but when he finally decided to exercise his charms on her, she was helpless to stop him. Then I realized romance is often written solely from the heroine's viewpoint, so we see her struggles and know her mind, but we don't know the motivations of the hero. By the time the big reveal of the HEA, we usually find out the hero was just as conflicted as the heroine, struggling to deny his attraction to her, for myriad reasons.

Isn't that the same as "real" life? We don't know what the guy is thinking; we can occasionally read the verbal or facial cues, but another's mind is truly a mystery until the "big reveal" of his feelings. It's not the feminist thing to say, but men and women are different - genetically, emotionally, physically. What some see as a weak, passive female may just be a quietly strong woman. Some may see a loud and snarky witch, while others see an independent and feisty amazon. It's all based on our own perspectives, not some generalized norm.

To me, romance novels aren't escapism or fantasy (except for the love scenes - the stamina and focus of those heroes!). I've seen plenty of HEAs in the lives of my friends and family. I have had, and am still living, my own HEA. It doesn't mean I don't have unexpected bills to pay or crazy kids sometimes, but my life mirrors a romance novel waaaaay more than "straight-forward porn." And may I add, thank the good Lord for that.

Porn objectifies and trivializes everything. There's no character development or coherent dialogue. There's no conflict resolution or emotional depth. It's eye candy at the most, and the only strength I see the women or men evincing is that of never-ending yet unpleasant-looking sexual encounters. Be honest - do the facial expressions on any of these people look happy, satisfied, content, pleased, or empowered? They all seem rather forced and pained to me.

I think most romance novels (that we would place in the "good" category) have the moments where the hero and heroine have their own epiphanies and learn the good and the bad about themselves, and how being together evens out each others rough spots. I personally enjoy the multi-faceted natures of the characters in romance novels. I like how the hero and heroine are flawed, and when they come together the flaws are still there, but they are now enveloped in a loving relationship. Love covers - not erases, but perhaps eases - the prickly areas. We love because of who some one is, not in spite of.

As a recovering romance-basher, I'll take even the most trite, conventional, moralistic "chick lit" over anything labeled porn. Everyday. And twice on Sunday.

*end diatribe*

Julia said...

Hello Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott,

I never expected so many replies to that comment.

First of: I didn't even consider that you would take that as a comment on your books - it certainly wasn't intended as one, or as an evaluation of every romance novel ever written. I thought with saying that I read good as well as bad ones I was on the safe side. (Thanks deeply to Elena Yatzeck by the way for pointing that out.) From everything I've seen on this blog I would certainly think that your's are very good because they are based on a lot of background knowledge.

I'm tempted to give examples of the really good and the really frighteningly bad, but since tastes are so different, I'd probably better not.

Influence of the stories on the readers - now there's a whole different bucket of snakes. How much are we influenced by the stories we read? I suspect, much more than we are aware. Case in point: Unrealistic beauty-ideals are hard to shake off for women even when we know full well that they stem from doctored pictures and a whole bag of tricks used by movie-makers. And that's what I usually have my eye on with (romance) books & movies, not so much the dashing hero, but what the heroine is like that the reader probably identifies with while reading.

Back to a few centuries earlier: From what I've picked up from Fordyce & company, moralist writers expected young women of the time were to be very retiring as well as passive and disinterested towards (non-related) men, not develop any strong emotions towards them and not even be interested in marrying any particular man.

I suspect that if a girl grows up so guarded, romance novels would not only mess up the "don't be interested in men" but also be more likely to have an effect on their dreams & expectations.

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