Lori H. Newcomb
The history of the novel, as the preeminent fiction form of the modern world, is so inextricable from the longer history of romance that most languages except English use a single word for all extended prose fictions. In Spanish that single word is novela, but many other languages still draw on the older tradition: der Roman, le roman, il romanzo. This entry, treating “romance” in an encyclopedia of the “novel,” necessarily reflects English-language usage in distinguishing the two. However, it resists an Anglocentric model of fiction history, dominant in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that defined “novels” as ambitious, avowedly realist, fictions by modern authors (along with a few precursors), while implying that romances were not just formally distinct but developmentally inferior. Today, genre theorists recognize that the line drawn between novel and romance was and is provisional. Romance, then, includes much of the West's non-novelistic prose fiction, but not just pre-novelistic prose fiction, for romance did not become an atavism upon the novel's conception. Romances are written and read today not merely as ancestors of the novel; although often set in a version of the past, they are living kin. The romance space outside novelistic norms—timeless and boundless, deliberately conventionalized, idealized, even fantastic—remains compelling to writers and audiences.
Romance “as a genre is impossible adequately to define” in more positive terms (Saunders, 1—2), because its texts live in exchange between languages and cultures, authors and translators, past and present, verse and prose. That fluidity reflects the term's origins in cultural juncture. Early in the twelfth century, romanz named the vernaculars, such as old French and Anglo-Norman, derived from Latin by lay speakers. By the century's end, “romance” was applied metonymically to the secular texts most widely translated into, or produced in, those vernaculars: idealized adventures of historical heroes and their imagined courts. Audiences fluent in French or Anglo-Norman consumed metrical romances gathered from three distinct traditions: the “matter of Rome,” or romans antiques, treating Troy, Thebes, or Alexander the Great; the “matter of France,” featuring Charlemagne and Roland; and the “matter of Britain,” Celtic legends of Arthur. A fragmentary fourth “matter of England” can be glimpsed in Anglo-Norman romances with northern ties: Havelok the Dane, Guy of Warwick. All four matters were intercultural, syncretizing old verse forms and epic values with Christian virtues in the European aristocracy's defining chivalric code. The matter of Britain, with its greater interest in the supernatural and in heterosexual love, grew most in scale and sophistication. Prose versions outstripped the verse romances and originated the influential technique of “interlace,” the interweaving of multiple plots; by 1485, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur compassed the Arthurian tradition in 507 chapters.
The last wave of chivalric prose romances came from Iberia. Amadís de Gaula, first published in 1508 in Castilian by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, furthered romance's tendencies toward erotic frankness, magic, and length. Its many volumes, translations, and imitators profited from the expansion of the print market to reach a massive audience across Europe. New works in the Peninsular mode were written in seventeenth-century England, long after the continental vogue had faded. Writers ranging from the masters of the Spanish Baroque to English spiritual autobiographers cited the romances, or later chapbook redactions, as their earliest reading. Romance, in other words, continued to exceed the boundaries of national traditions, literary fashions, and authorial names. It was a Spaniard who indelibly satirized its excesses: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in Don Quixote (1605, 1615) portrayed an old man so addled by romances that he believes himself a knight. Don Quixote was an expanding text too, but newly aware of its print medium: in pt. 2, Don Quixote meets characters who have read pt. 1. That material self-reflexivity recurred in the eighteenth-century novel.
By 1600, many of romance's present senses were clearly established: its roots in the new Romance languages, its historical grounds, its characteristic quest structure—and its audience appeal across boundaries of era, nation, class, and gender. The vernacular and secular romance did not merit formal analysis by monastic scholars; nor was it clearly distinguished from “history.” Even today, the breadth of romance defeats genre theory: it includes tales of adventure and/or love and/or the supernatural, in prose and/or verse, set in distant and/or past lands, centered on protagonists who are male and/or female, invented and/or historical, written for the pleasure and/or instruction of an aristocratic and/or popular audience. Not surprisingly, some contemporary critics have argued that romance is not a genre but a mode of heroism (Northrop Frye), a language of multiplicity (Parker), a set of memes like shipwrecks and transposed birth (Cooper), or strategy for cultural translation (Fuchs). In the Renaissance, the unclassifiability of romance spurred distrust. Humanist writers condemned romances as immoral love stories especially pernicious to youth, foolishness for women, falsifications of history, or Romish trickery. The fear that romances were lies for the ignorant raised the bar for early modern romance writers.
A retrospective definition of romance can identify two dynamics of diversification in the early modern era, two ways for writers to use romance while evading formal or moral disapprobation. First, romance exchanged its memes and strategies with longer-established genres, such as verse epic. Second, romance itself proliferated subgenres, with new forms sometimes called “novel,” at first simply meaning “new.” The modern era resolved these dynamics by splitting fiction into the two genres that the English call novel and romance, and the French (for instance) roman and roman moderne. Of course this split was not uniform, inevitable, or final; the modern novel continued to absorb romance resources.
In the first dynamic, romance strategies enlivened the verse epics and allegories that grounded Europe's emerging national literatures. Interlace supported the complexity of Ludovico Ariosto's Roland epic, Orlando Furioso (1516); Torquato Tasso's epic of the Crusades, Gerusalemme liberate (1581, Jerusalem Liberated); and Edmund Spenser's unfinished Arthurian Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). These verse epics raised the stakes for prose romance, too. Sir Philip Sidney insisted in his Defense of Poesie (wr. 1579) that a true poem could be written in prose and still offer “notable examples” of virtue, powerfully asserting fiction's superiority to history. Sidney demonstrated his claim only partially in the revision of his romance The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia, left incomplete on his death in 1589. Still, his revision joined continental humanists in devising the romance theory that Aristotle lacked: Sidney's models included Jacopo Sannazaro's Italian pastoral Arcadia, Jorge de Montemayor's Diana, and Heliodorus's Aethiopica. The latter (ca. 300 CE) was one of five Greek love-fictions rediscovered in the Renaissance and thenceforward attached to the Western romance tradition (suggesting that romance germinated as epic's counter-narrative). Romance even structured the Puritan allegory that was, for two centuries, the most influential English book after the King James Bible, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Chapbook versions of chivalric tales were the only books in Bunyan's hardscrabble village. After his conversion, he was inspired to treat the road to salvation as a very humble chivalric quest. The everyman Christian must escape the Giant Despair and fight the dragon Apollyon in order to win a golden crown beside God. Romance memes guided the autodidact writer and gripped his earnest readers.
Ambivalence about romance also led to a second dynamic, the constant assertion of new fiction subgenres. Some genres were named as subsets of “history”; other genres had names like “novel” that signified new literary decora. There was no consistent evolution, however. Since fiction was still theorized as offering exemplary ideals, the new romance subgenres primarily sought verisimilitude, which had more to do with the lifelike depiction of the best human actions than the pursuit of documentary truth. Verisimilitude was seen to vary with stories' framing, length, or narratorial embellishment. As early as the sixteenth century, short tales called novellas or nouvelles were gathered in framed collections imitating the manuscript Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio from the 1350s, among them Matteo Bandello's Novelle (1554); the Heptaméron (1558), attributed to Marguerite de Navarre; William Painter's translated sampler, The Palace of Pleasure (1566); and Cervantes's Novelas Exemplares (Exemplary Novellas, 1613).
A more recognizable “novel” was opposed to “romance” in William Congreve's polished Incognita, or, Love and Duty Reconcil'd, still in length a novella. Congreve's preface (1692) anticipates definitions hammered out a century later:
Romances are generally composed of the Constant Loves and invincible Courages of Hero's, Heroins, Kings and Queens, Mortals of the first Rank, and so forth; where lofty Language, miraculous Contingencies and impossible Performances, elevate and surprize the Reader into a giddy Delight....Novels are of a more familiar nature; Come near us,...delight us with Accidents and odd Events,...such which not being so distant from our Belief bring also the pleasure nearer us. (“Preface to the Reader”)
Yet only forty years before Congreve, romance had peaked in prestige in the enormous romans héroïques produced in the French salons. As before, gentlemen and ladies passed historical fictions across the Channel; since these now ran to ten volumes, the readers themselves were heroic. It was an open secret that titles published under the name of M. de Scudéry, such as Ibrahim ou l'Illustre Bassa (1641—42, Ibrahim: or the Illustrious Bassa) and Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus (1649—53, Artamene, or the Grand Cyrus), were written by his sister, and that European current events were legible in these Orientalist settings. England's royalist exiles borrowed the strategy for manuscript romances about the Civil War.
The name of innovation then reverted to “history,” with a more compressed ideal achieved in the French petite histoire, most notably Madame de Lafayette's psychologically penetrating Princesse de Clèves (1678, The Princess of Cleves). In England, a new generation of professional women writers offered works on the boundaries of fiction called “secret histories” or, if short, “novels.” Aphra Behn, England's signal professional woman author, exploited a Grub Street gray area by asserting that her Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave (1688) was an eyewitness history. In fact, the text mixes accurate colonial observation, romance idealization of her African protagonist, and disturbing sensationalism. In the eighteenth century, “secret histories” by Mrs. Manley clearly were political allegories, while the “novels” of Eliza Haywood unleashed romance's dark secret, wronged female desire. The moralizing male writers of England's mid-eighteenth century, whose domestic realism would soon define the modern novel, were uncomfortably aware that many “romances” and “novels” were erotic; in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), Henry Fielding mocked “foolish Novels” and “monstrous Romances” (bk. 9, chap. 5).
In 1785, Clara Reeve's Progress of Romance asserted that after romance declined into heroic monstrosity, “the modern Novel sprung up out of its ruins” (8). Longer retrospect shows that even the canonical novels depended on romance subtexts for their reality effects. In 1740—41 Samuel Richardson's Mr. B. threatened that he and Pamela could “make out between us,...a pretty Story in Romance” (Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, vol. 1, letter 15). Mr. B. implies that Pamela's fears are romance-fanned desires. The hint that romance is the novel's antagonist was taken up in Charlotte Lennox's Female Quixote (1752). (By 1801, the naïve American girl in Tabitha Gilman Tenney's Female Quixotism was misled by novels.) Yet Richardson's writing sometimes encodes his youthful affection for chivalric romances, as when he names Mr. B.'s Swiss manservant, feared by Pamela as a hairy monster, after Colbrand—the romance giant defeated by Guy of Warwick, a squire of low degree, in winning the lady Felice.
Nineteenth-century England claimed Fielding and Richardson as fathers of the modern novel, its realism a clean break with romance. Realism firmly appropriated literature to a nationalist agenda: fiction's lessons were no longer delivered from placeless idealizations but from individuals' lived, national particularities. Non-English-speaking literatures continued to call their new prose productions romans, yet their equation of realism to modernity tacitly followed England's disowning of romance. Our growing sense of the novel's transnationalism reveals a material difference between romance and novel: while romance was “effortlessly” translated for international traffic, the novel pursued authorial style and national identity so deliberately that it resisted translation (McMurran, 9).
A corollary was that romance was now relocated in time: a genre constantly reborn at the crossroads of history and fiction was reduced to dead, idealized past-ness. So misunderstood, romance became newly productive for the novel, and for modernity, as a literary license for fictive alternatives to the present. Hence writers rehabilitated “romance” for certain kinds of nonrealistic writing, not least romanticism. On a hint from Coleridge, Victorian Shakespeare critics called the late plays “romances” while suppressing their ties to early prose fictions. In a positivist age, Sir Walter Scott licensed his historical fictions by calling them romances. In America, Nathaniel Hawthorne claimed that the subtitle of The House of the Seven Gables: A Romance (1851) gave the work “a certain latitude, both as to fashion and material,” not available in “writing a Novel” (“Preface by the Author”). As Henry James confirmed, such romance was sternly repressed in New England; Europe was romance's ancient and natural home. However, one mid-twentieth-century literary theory held that America's outsize experience grew its novels into “American romances.” Increasingly, romance was a lost sense of the mythic that high modernism could filch from any culture's early literature. The 1925 English translation of the great Ming Chinese tale Three Kingdoms, a rigorous historical fiction, was dubbed Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Jessie L. Weston's reading of the Grail cycle in From Ritual to Romance (1920) shaped T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922). In Anatomy of Criticism (1957) and The Secular Scripture (1976), Northrop Frye elaborated romance as a transcultural mode of lost heroism. Sigmund Freud's theory of Familienroman (“family romance”), first published in 1909, reads the romance meme of transposed birth as a formative stage in psychological development. These revivals and extensions prove that romance remains a powerful resource for fantasy in a world constrained by realism.
Romance still enriches modern novels in several registers. Romance as enfolded storytelling, creating a complex but otherworldly world, became the basis for the modern fantasy genre. The world of medieval romance is transposed in fantasy's first masterpiece, J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954—55), and its youngest blockbuster, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter cycle. Ironically, the contemporary formula genre known as “romance” hews closer to the novel than romance in insisting that its likable female protagonist and her initially repellent wooer are developing characters. The readers of formula romance are intensely active in shaping their genre, in response to their changing wishes and even to literary critique. The readership of formula romance demonstrates that the long habit of defining romance by its audience has a positive basis. Granted, the serious novel disowned audiences' pleasure in the inchoate and formulaic, and literary authorship cannot revert to the nameless collaborations that first circulated romance. Yet today's novelists still need romance's capacity to engage audiences in counterfactual, border-crossing narratives. The contemporary transnational novel embraces many strategies—historical layering, embedded and infolded tales, quests and cycles, intertextual ties to multiple national traditions—from among the endless resources of romance.
1. Aravamudan, S. (2005), “Fiction/Translation/Transnation,” in Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel and Culture, ed. P. R. Backsheiderr and C. Ingrassia.
2. Ballaster, R. (1998), Seductive Forms.
3. Cooper, H. (2004), English Romance in Time.
4. Fuchs, B. (2004), Romance.
5. Heng, G. (2003), Empire of Magic.
6. McMurran, M.H. (2010), Spread of Novels.
7. Parker, P.A. (1979), Inescapable Romance.
8. Pearce, L. (2007), Romance Writing.
9. Reeve, C. (1785), Progress of Romance, through times, countries, and manners.
10. Saunders, C., ed. (2004), Companion to Romance.
11. Warner, W.B. (1998), Licensing Entertainment.
12. Whitmarsh, T., ed. (2008), Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel.