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.
A feminine mode pervades these figures, a mode characterized by the experiential rather than abstract, by the spirit rather than discursive reasoning.
Karl Stern, in his philosophical work “Flight From Woman,” argues that 300 years of scientific revolution have de-feminized and de-humanized society. To Stern, femininity is not strict role-playing but a form of knowledge. He defines masculine knowledge as scientific and rational, and feminine knowledge as intuitive and poetic--not irrational but trans-rational. Masculinity objectifies in order to know; femininity knows by union with another. For example, the Virgin Mary inaugurated the salvation of humanity by her acceptance of God's initiative. Her contemplative union with God, rather than an objective analysis of God, characterized her decision. Her feminine mode saved the world.
Stern says that when society discards the feminine mode of knowing, it morphs into an ambitious, cruel organization, instead of becoming a loving organism. For Stern, a masculine and feminine polarity is "anchored in the absolute," and women who abandon their femininity become "eminently phallic" or "masochistically submit to" this organizational apparatus. Stern upholds Eve, mother of all the living, and the Virgin Mary, whose "yes" made redemption possible, as types of feminine wisdom lost to our present society.
Many women saints revered in the past would not pass muster as useful or ambitious enough in current culture. Their popularity was based on their modesty and the positive influence they had on others. Two fourth-century bishops called their elder sister Macrina "Teacher," honoring her skill in their childrearing. Macrina's modesty was renowned; she once refused medical care for a wound on her breast, because she could not bear to have her nakedness exposed to a doctor, or even her own mother. Macrina prayed herself for healing and subsequently was completely cured.
During the reign of Emperor Hadrian, a widow named Sophia encouraged her three young daughters to endure persecution to death after their refusal to worship the goddess Artemis. She admonished them, "Your heavenly Lover, Jesus Christ, is eternal health, inexpressible beauty and life eternal. When your bodies are slain by torture, He will cloth you in incorruption and the wounds on your bodies will shine in heaven like the stars." These are stories of romanticism, of virtue, not of worldly logic.
I once considered romance novels a genre of escapism. Perhaps not. Perhaps they are instead a subconscious lifeline to a forgotten world, a world that remembers the feminine wisdom of abandonment, trust, and union in love with others. If Dame Cartland’s books champion that wisdom, I hope a billion more sell.