The history of the romantic novel is as old as the history of the novel itself.
There have always been love stories – remember Paris and Helen of Troy, or Samson and Delilah – but, like buying cheap insurance, they usually ended in misery. Even Shakespeare’s greatest romance, Romeo and Juliet, concludes with a death and a suicide.
The romantic novel as we know it today can be traced back to what was arguably the first novel ever published, the mammoth Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, in 1740.
Coming in at 180,560 words, it is the story of a 15-year-old maidservant, Pamela, who wards off repeated attempts by her master, the local squire, to rape her. Eventually her virtue pays off and he proposes marriage. It sounds appalling by today’s standards, but is what passed off as high romance in Georgian times! Not only is the subject matter dodgy, the book was written entirely as a series of detailed letters. One of them is so long it has been calculated it would have taken poor Pamela nearly a whole day to write it, leaving no time for the events it describes to actually happen. Despite these drawbacks, Pamela was wildly successful, and has been hailed as the first ever novel. It also lays the groundwork for the modern romance genre. Romance novels are often written from the perspective of one of the potential lovers – just as Pamela is.
One of the few hard and fast rules of modern romance is that there must be a satisfying conclusion, and the romance has to be central to the plot.
It is also important the would-be lovers encounter some adversity, which they finally overcome. Pamela ticks all these boxes, even if leaping out of a wardrobe while the object of your affections is getting undressed and forcing yourself on her is more likely to get you an injunction than a trip down the aisle these days.
From the world of Pamela, the romance novel developed quickly. Richardson had written it hoping to influence the morals of his readers, but its success meant the novel started to concentrate on giving readers what they wanted – stories about people falling in love. And no more interminable letters.
This reached a peak with the incomparable Jane Austen, who published Sense and Sensibility in 1811. Austen’s works are among the few romance novels elevated to the heights of ‘literature’. This is unfair on the genre, which is often dismissed as being formulaic and trashy – usually by people who don’t read it. Austen’s exquisite works kicked off what was to be an epic century for romance novels. The Bronte sisters, with Wuthering Heights (1847) and Jane Eyre (1847), gave us two brooding romantic heroes in Heathcliff and Rochester.
Thomas Hardy made us weep at the fate of poor Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) - not a happy and satisfying ending at all, but that is Hardy for you - and cheer when priggy Margaret and contemptuous Thornton finally get together in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854).
However, as the novel entered the 20th century the parameters of the genre began to solidify. The 1919 novel The Sheik, by Edith Maude Hull, was a best-seller. The plot is ludicrous, involving a headstrong noblewoman being kidnapped by an Arab sheik, and, you’ve guessed it, raped. Despite this, she falls in love with him and eventually he realises his true feelings for her.
The 1921 film, starring sex-symbol Rudolph Valentino, whetted audiences’ appetites for more romance.
In the same year, Georgette Heyer published her first novel, The Black Moth. It included highwaymen and impoverished nobles and, before long, Heyer was releasing a novel a year, feeding a never-ending appetite for historical romance.
Around the same time, publishing house Mills & Boon had noted the rise in popularity of cheap libraries and the need for escapism from the Depression of the 1930s. They concentrated on books aimed at women and made them cheap and accessible. A hook-up with distributors Harlequin in the 1950s meant they could expand into the States. ‘Mills & Boon’ has since become a catch-all phrase to describe – and denigrate – romance novels. Plots are criticised for being formulaic, misogynist and written to a template. However, this hasn’t stopped romance being easily the biggest seller when it comes to genre fiction - with around 20% of readers believed to be men. There are now dozens of sub-genres, from gay Regency romances to books featuring Greek tycoons, S&M (The Shades of Grey books by EL James broke records in 2011) and even shape-shifters (men turning into bears is a popular one). Things have come a long way since Pamela!