The category romance does not enjoy a revered history in intellectual circles. As with much of popular culture, the academic world seems embarrassed even by its own pleasures.
And yet from time immemorial, the value of the romance novel has been demonstrated through the affection and admiration of its readers. Published in 1740, Pamela by Samuel Richardson proved so popular that the author had to battle the equivalent of fan fiction in order to retain rights to his own work.
Although Jane Austen retained greater control over the work that made her a household name (and subsequently created an entire Hollywood industry), Pride & Prejudice has been "owned," used, interpreted, and absorbed by generations of readers, writers, and critics.
Despite the common but lazy dismissal of the genre as "derivative," Pamela and Pride & Prejudice are distinct and unique works. Published decades apart, they reflect shifts in class dynamics, cultural attitudes, and the evolving styles of narrative fiction (still an experimental form when Richardson set pen to paper) between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
More concretely, the two romances utilize different approaches to their protagonists. Pamela concentrates on the hero and heroine's mutual seduction: the literal seduction of Pamela; the mental seduction of Mr. B. Pride & Prejudice focuses on the hero and heroine's discovery of each other within, despite, and through their shared social milieu.
Both novels center on the romantic relationship, asking ageless questions: What motivates attraction? Can social and familial differences be overcome? What personalities are most compatible? What makes a good marriage? What role does respect have in a relationship? Can hurts and offenses be understood and forgiven? Who is not an appropriate mate?
These questions lie at the heart of our everyday experiences, grand and mundane, communal and domestic. They signify individuality, female and male. The romance is the ultimate introspective literature, an exploration of human motives, doubts, needs, wants, and, always, choices.
Intellectually approved or not, any romance reader will tell you the truth: romances matter, because they plumb the most important questions that trouble the human heart.
What follows are two tributes to the romance novel, fashioned as retellings from the point of view of the heroes of the aforementioned books: Mr. B and Darcy. Which of these questions resonate in their hearts? As with any story worth writing down, new and revealing answers are always there to be found, no matter how many times the tale is retold.
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The Gentleman & The RakeHistorical Fiction
In one volume, you can read two classic English romances reimagined by Katherine Woodbury. The "gentleman" is Darcy from Pride & Prejudice; the "rake" Mr. B from Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Mr. B Speaks! is part reimagining, par...