Blame It on Eleanor
My romance novel habit is all Eleanor of Aquitaine’s fault.
When I was six, I fell in love with Eleanor of Aquitaine. I wanted to be Eleanor of Aquitaine, to ride off on Crusade, to launch a thousand troubadour songs, to marry a king—and then jilt him, and marry another. But if I couldn’t be Eleanor of Aquitaine, I’d have to settle for reading about her. I went through all the younger grade biographies of her in the school library. Finally, in desperation, my father thrust Mary Lide’s Ann of Cambray at me, an action packed medieval romance in which Eleanor of Aquitaine had a cameo role.
And that was that. I was hooked. From Ann of Cambray, it was a short hop to Jude Deveraux and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Johanna Lindsey and other mass market paperbacks on whose covers scantily clad women with too much blue eyeshadow and anachronistic outfits bent at an improbable angle over the arms of Fabio look-alikes. I read The Wolf and the Dove under the table during Middle School science class (which may account for my science grades) and brought in M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind to sixth grade history class for our unit about the slave trade.
All of this is a very long way of saying that I’ve spent many years toting romance novels around with me—and just as many years defending them. Over the years, I’ve covered the gamut of arguments as to why romance novels are the best things since sliced bread and can cure the common cold. (Okay, maybe they can’t cure the common cold, but they do provide a more potent form of distraction than Sudafed.)
When I was in high school, filling my book bag with McNaught, Woodiwiss, and Victoria Holt, it was all about the academic angle. Forget test prep flashcards; everything my best friend and I needed to know to ace the verbal portion of the SAT we learned from Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. That tended to silence the mockers fairly quickly—especially if they were using said flashcards at the time.
In college, as I devoured Joan Wolf’s Regencies and Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s contemporaries, I had a pompous little set piece about the romance novelist being engaged in the same grand project as Plato or Shakespeare: the attempt to understand human nature. Because isn’t that what so much of the quest for knowledge is really about? And what better lens through which to view the intricacies of the human spirit than the heights—or depths—of romantic love, when people lay their inner selves most bare. (And their outer selves, too, if page 362 was anything to go by.) There was also the speech about the importance of romance novels as a valuable sociological artifact, but I saved that one for (a) social science types, (b) after a few drinks.
Sometimes I wince a little when I remember my college self.
In grad school? It was the era of Julia Quinn and Amanda Quick and I was all about the female empowerment angle. Romances are the most notable form of fiction by women, for women, featuring female protagonists who are more than foils for the main male lead. It’s all about the heroine’s journey, and the hero had better get in a good grovel at the end if he wants to wind up with her. Medieval, Regency, contemporary, it doesn’t matter: in the end, the hero tends to be humbled. The creaking of those greaves when the medieval hero grovels is a distinctly satisfying sound.
Ten years and ten books later, I have a new theory about the power and importance of romance. These books feature bluestockings and tomboys, adventuresses and ingénues, ugly ducklings and prom queens. I’ve read about heroes dealing with PTSD, heroes fighting alcoholism, scarred heroes, too good looking for their own good heroes, and some heroes with serious emotional baggage. In the end, though, the message is the same: no matter how scarred or wounded, no matter how quirky or unconventional (or no matter how staid and conventional), everyone deserves love. For every hero or heroine out there, there’s someone who will love them for their flaws and scars and will, through that love, help them be the best person they can be.
For me, that’s the wonder of romance novels, whether it’s the first you’ve read or the five hundredth: watching two people discover the best in each other and reaffirm that, yes, there really is something lovable in everyone.
What more important message could there be?
I’m sure even Eleanor of Aquitaine would agree.
You are reading this essay at ReadARomanceMonth.com. Be sure to visit the About Read-A-Romance Month to learn more, or the Authors & Contributors page to see a list of all the great romance writers who are participating in celebrating the romance genre during the month of August. Also visit the Awesome Contests page to see how you can register each week to win “A Month of Romance” (31 books), e-readers, and even the Grand Central Grand Prize, an iPad mini. If you love romance, then this is the place to be!
Lauren is generously donating one autographed copy of The Passion of the Purple Plumeria to a U.S. reader and one autographed copy of The Passion of the Purple Plumeria to an International reader (International readers enter here). U.S. readers, to enter, either leave a comment here or enter the weekly drawing on the contest page. Or both. (Only one entry per commenter per post, though – multiple comments on one essay does not give you more chances.) Comment entries must be posted by 11:59pm EST Aug 17 to be eligible, though winners will be announced the following week.
LAUREN WILLIG is the author of the New York Times bestselling Pink Carnation series, as well as the recent bestseller, The Ashford Affair, and a RITA Award-winner for Best Regency Historical for The Mischief of Mistletoe. She graduated from Yale University, and has a graduate degree in English history from Harvard and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. A former historian and a lapsed lawyer, she lives in New York City, where she now writes full time.