Thursday, 5 January 2012

GUEST POST: Laura Vivanco

From the Middle Ages to Harlequin/Mills & Boon Romance

The publication of For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance marks a significant stage in my transformation from a medievalist into a scholar of popular culture. My time spent with medieval literature has, however, shaped my approach to, and my expectations of, literature. As a result, I was unconvinced by many of the criticisms I encountered of Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances. In the face of Ann Barr Snitow’s confident statement that descriptions of clothing are “the number one filler in Harlequins” (249), for example, and Janice Radway’s opinion that

The clothes described [...] almost never figure significantly in the developing action. Instead, the plot is momentarily, often awkwardly, delayed as the narrator accidentally notices seemingly superfluous details for the reader. The details, however, are not really superfluous at all. They are part of an essential shorthand that establishes that, like ordinary readers, fictional heroines are “naturally” preoccupied with fashion. (193)

I was unavoidably reminded of the importance of colour symbolism in many medieval works. As Harriet Goldberg has observed,

In sentimental romances and other courtly works, architectural marvels, banners, shields, gowns, tunics and hose are colourful embellishments. Their colour was often the bearer of extra meaning. [...] Although some authors explained their chromatic imagery, others did not, relying on a chromatic awareness shared with their readership. (221)

It therefore occurred to me that perhaps the critics’ low opinion of modern romances was based on a lack of understanding of the conventions which modern romance authors “shared with their readership.” And so, instead of accepting that “Any history of the romance will in one sense be a record of decadence. The works now popularly called ‘romances’ are usually sub-literature” (Beer 1), I began to look at them more closely. As I did so, I discovered topoi such as the locus amoenus and the hunt of love, familiar to me from reading medieval texts. There were also explicit and implicit references to chivalric romances which support Peter Swirski’s argument that

popular literature created for the mass enjoyment of mass readership may be as true a medium of literary artistry and aesthetic continuity as the canon, circulating and recycling plots, narratives, and characters that have proven their enduring worth. [...] Its predilection for well tried formulas and its penchant for recycling may, at the end of the day, be a good way to preserve the great motifs of literature for new generations of readers. (64)

I’d like to think that one can take both a scholar and romances out of the Middle Ages, but you can’t entirely remove traces of medievalism from either of them.


  • Beer, Gillian. The Romance. The Critical Idiom, 10. 1970. London: Methuen, 1977.

  • Goldberg, Harriet. “A Reappraisal of Colour Symbolism in the Courtly Prose Fiction of Late-Medieval Castile.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 69.3 (1992): 221-37.

  • Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

  • Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141–61. Rpt. in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P, 1983. 245–63.

  • Swirski, Peter. From Lowbrow to Nobrow. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005.

    1. I think that clothes are often a very important theme in the books and usually not about fashion at all. In fact, I blogged about this here and here.

    2. Those posts of yours reminded me of the phrase "wearing one's heart on one's sleeve." Though perhaps, in a lot of the situations you described, in which the hero gives the heroine clothes, it would be more accurate to say that if she accepts them, she's wearing his heart on her sleeve.