My interest in the romance genre was piqued upon the death of Barbara Cartland, Dame of Hatfield, whose 723 novels have sold 1 billion copies worldwide in 36 languages. That statistic was worth exploring. I checked out three of the romance queen's novels at the local library, along with her nonfiction "Etiquette for Love and Romance." The pages housed characters of chivalry, courtesy, long-suffering, and undying love in the forms of courageous, protective heroes and demure, fiercely loyal heroines.
Dame Cartland dared to preach that the man should take the initiative in a relationship: "Man is the hunter and should never be hunted. In fact, if you want to be a success, the great thing is to be slightly elusive and let the man realize he is successful if he manages to tie you down." She risked saying that men and women psychologically experienced the sexual act differently: "What modern couples forget is that for a man, sex is a physical desire that can be made uplifting and spiritual by the real love which comes from the heart--but this is too often forgotten. On the other hand, for a woman every act of love is a moment of soul-stirring adventure in which she is very emotionally involved. This is the difference of the sexes that causes so much trouble and so much unhappiness."
Most would regard the dame's comments as sexist and sentimental. I myself laughed out loud when I read the climactic sentence of her work “Lights, Laughter and a Lady”: "Then there was only the music of the angels and the blinding light of eternal love." But the woman did sell a billion books.
I called my expert friend to find out what the attraction was. She pondered this for a moment. "The attraction is that as a woman, it would be nice to have a man take care of you. We all want to be superwomen, but I would have liked to have been born in another time, to have been the heroine in a romance novel, a time when women didn't have to take on the responsibility of the world."
"Does reading these romances help or hinder a relationship?" I asked.
"Both," she replied. "On the one hand, these novels will blow a female's expectations of a man out of proportion. Real men today don't have a romantic bone in their bodies. They are not going to light the candles and carry you up the stairs. Today's man not only holds a job but also has child-rearing and household responsibilities, like the woman. But I do know someone who gives these books to her husband to help him learn how to set the mood!"
Describing the mixed roles and stretched-to-breaking schedules of both her and her husband, she went on to admit: "I don't even linger over or even sometimes read the sexual parts of the stories. The point is they relieve the daily stress we're under, and I like happy endings."
There you have it. Mystical unions and happy endings. Modest heroines abandoning themselves to protective heroes awakened from cynicism by their singular love. Women bringing joy and ecstasy to men. Men vowing unique devotion to women. Physical unity between a woman and a man being elevated to spiritual unity.
In real life, these things are denied as fantasy. Indeed, femininity and masculinity themselves are regarded as fantasy, as cultural constructs and denotations. Yet the magnetic attraction and faithful bond between heroines and heroes in Cartland's novels struck a chord in millions of readers.
I think it's because masculinity and femininity are not shifting categories but core realities. Romance novels and Scripture attest to the so-called ridiculous and outdated idea that masculinity and femininity are distinct absolutes.
During the creation of woman, Adam fell into a mystical trance and in a moment of ecstasy recognized Eve as the being that complemented him psychologically and physically. Scripture indicates that Eve is the poetic, artistic creation of God, molded not from the earth but finely crafted from a rib. She is related to bios; she is the mother of all the living. Woman is the muse, the inspiration, the one who saves man from loneliness.
Throughout salvation history, woman appears as a prophetic figure, paving the path for central, male "savior" characters. She often accomplishes this through marriage, childbirth, or prioritizing personal or familial relationships. Moses' mother inaugurated the exodus of Israel when she hid her newborn son among the bulrushes. Ruth clung to her mother-in-law Naomi, and through marriage to Boaz, ensured the birth of her grandson, King David. Queen Esther preserved her nation from ruin under Persian rule by her beauty, her persuasive manner, and her submission toward King Ahaseurus.