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  • Writer's pictureBeth Linton

A Modern Romance Story

I’ve written before about the evolution of the romance genre, and about the apologetic grimaces many women give as they buy a romance novel. But why? Why do women love a good romance story? And, more importantly, why do so many of us feel we should feel guilty about our love of romance books?

World War One saw a period of massive societal change. Not only were gender roles redefined as men went to war and women stepped out of the domestic sphere to complete previously male dominated roles at work, but women faced a future reshaped by the lasting scars of the war. As we all know, many young men were tragically killed in the conflict, and those who returned were altered by their experience – both physically and mentally. Life didn’t get back to normal - how could it?

Women who’d been taught from the cradle that they’d marry and be mothers now faced a world where there were few men to wed. I recently learnt that only one in ten women from that generation would marry. This statistic was hard to get my head around: clearly the war had a profound impact on this generation of women, and those that followed, in a way I’d not previously considered. Given this fact, it is no wonder attitudes to romance changed, and the popularity of romance novels grew as their pages offered both romance and escape from the realities of a post-war world.

This evening I watched a BBC documentary about this very subject: A Very British Romance with Lucy Worsley. Now, I confess, I LOVE Lucy Worsley, and I devour her documentaries with almost as much enthusiasm as I do a romance book, so when I stumbled upon this gem, I was thrilled!

In this documentary Lucy Worsley discusses The Sheik by E. M. Hull, a romance novel that was a huge hit in post-war Britain. For the time period this book was a racy read! It is the story of an independent woman being overcome by, and at the mercy of, an alpha male Sheik. While the plot of a helpless woman being physically overcome by a man in power is an uncomfortable read for us in the twenty-first century (it’s the kind of bodice ripping theme that critics of romance frequently criticise the genre for), Lucy Worsley makes an excellent point: she argues that for post-war women a plot of sex outside of marriage – sex the heroine ultimately enjoys guilt free – was not morally permissible. The only way for the heroine to enter into a sexual relationship without being married was to set the ‘affair’ in the context of the man forcing himself upon the heroine.

Let’s be clear, rape is an abhorrent crime, and I am in no way arguing that rape is acceptable in a modern romance book (my heroes usually ask for verbal consent), but we have to look at the evolution of the genre in the historical period to understand the success of this plot trope in this best seller. I can certainly see how the symbol of a physically whole and strong male would appeal to the audience in 1919 given the historical post-war context; I can also see how the trope of the dominant alpha male would allow a woman of that period to give herself permission (for want of a better phrase) to enjoy a story about the sexual desire society expected her to repress- especially given the lack of marriageable men.

What’s more, I think it is worth remembering that while some tropes can be troubling, the romance genre is predominantly a genre written by women for women. The Sheik was written by E. M. Hull, the wife of a pig farmer who penned the novel after her husband was called up to serve in the war. Hull put the S.E.X. into the romance novel., and her need for escapism was clearly shared by her readership as her novel was wildly successful. As Worsley says, The Sheik was the Fifty Shades of Gray of its day.

The documentary also discussed the change in romantic attitudes at this time, the expectation of romantic love as a right and that happiness could be found through sex within marriage. It was at this time that another best seller was published, this time the non-fiction Married Love. Like The Sheik, Married Love was written by a woman. Dr Marie Stopes was unhappy with the sex she found within her own marriage, and while the language of the book focusses on love, it is an explicit sex manual. With the change of gender dynamics, the more open discussion of sex and marriage and the shortage of marriageable men the focus of the book doesn’t present a traditional view of how a woman should please her man. Instead, the book is aimed at the new husband and explains how he can give the woman in the marital bed sexual satisfaction.

I have to say, that after looking at some of the language of Married Love I as left fanning myself! Non-fiction this best-seller may be, but the description within its pages isn’t shy, and the sex, especially the orgasm of the woman, is written in language that is evocative of a romance novel.

Good for Dr Marie Stopes!

Worsley’s documentary about the effect of a world-changing event on British women and their attitudes to romance and sex got me thinking about another world-changing event. The Pandemic. While twenty-first century post-lockdown Britain is clearly very different to society in 1919, I think there are similarities in terms of the strain placed on relationships and the expectation placed upon women in terms of gender roles. Research has shown that women were disproportionately affected in terms of child-care and domestic pressures. Post-pandemic, relationships crumbled, divorce cases jumped… and the popularity of the romance novel rose. As they did in post-war Britain, women looked for escape in the pages of a romance novel.

I wonder if the sales of sex manuals jumped too…?

  • To find out about The Guardians’ Trust series click here and visit my books page. A link to my books on Evernight Publishing website is here. You can also find exerpts to all my books in my blog. Enjoy!

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