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Ordinary People Learn History from Teachers, Movies, and This

“More people are getting their history, or what they think is history, from the movies these days than from the standard history books,” Richard Bernstein wrote in the New York Times in 1988. Since then the release of films set in the past has not slackened; consider the American dramas Django Unchained (2012) and Revenant (2015) and Russian spectacles like Admiral (2008). Leaving aside the question of what “the standard history books” might be, there is merit to Bernstein’s claim.

But I propose another, probably greater source today for knowledge and thought about history, and hence about what is valuable in society: romance novels. While the number of visits to movie theaters has stagnated, sales of romance novels climbed to $1.08 billion in 2013 and continue to grow. Yet that figure hardly reveals the extent of their distribution. More so than old movies, romances are widely available in libraries and on ubiquitous e-readers for free, while quite a few other stories are priced at 99 cents. Tales of love found can be durable; Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë are doing fine on the web. Anytime, anywhere is good for opening works in print or on an e-reader. Hundreds of clubs and individuals absorb romance to an extent unrivaled by movie-goers; the Romance Writers of America (RWA) found in a 2014 survey that 64 percent of readers went through at least one book a week.

Who are these readers, and how many are there? The RWA, which counts more than 10,200 member writers, says that 64.6 million Americans read at least one romance novel in 2015, up from 41 million in 1998. Women comprise 78% of readers, but the men’s share has risen to the remaining 22% from just 7% in a 2002 survey. Are men becoming more sensitive, or just more likely now to seek escape in book form?

Recently I joined the ranks of romance readers, especially of historical romance. My excuse is that it beats channel surfing when I’m tired. Here I offer a few thoughts, however unscientific, about romance novels’ influence on views of history and of current society. My own limitations in reading are that I refuse to pay more than 99 cents for an e-version of any story; I do not like Christian romances, as the few I have read seem modeled on the Book of Job, with especially prolonged violence and misery before the happy few reach a happy ending; I try to avoid novels about Viking shape-shifters, wolf pack alphas, and so on who exercise super powers as they whirl through time; I am not interested in the new genres of same-sex love. Nor do I look at certain specialized categories like Amish love. With those caveats in mind, my reading of some 80 heterosexual novels, mostly historical, qualifies me, I believe, to venture several points about how past and present are imagined in romances. The mental construction of a good, just society is the foundation for anyone’s political views.

What is a romance novel? It has to be a love story, of course. The RWA says that a work of romance features a couple struggling with their feelings but finally falling for each other, and that their story must have “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” The relationship must ultimately entail “emotional justice and unconditional love.”

Justice, love, emotional satisfaction: these outcomes are difficult to achieve in poverty. Therefore I would add to the RWA’s criteria that somebody–almost invariably the male–must be well off. In Blackstone’s Bride by Teresa Southwick (need I say that pseudonyms are usual among romance writers?), set in California in the 1880s, readers learn almost at the beginning that rancher Jarrod Blackstone is rich. But only toward the end of the novel do we find out that he owns 39,000 acres.

The leading male may come from a wealthy family, or he may have grown up with nothing on the streets of London or Boston, for example, later to make a fortune in shipping. Dukes and earls in pre-1914 Britain tend to have extensive resources. In more current settings, billionaires abound, as in the young owner of an NFL team in Carly Phillips’s Dare to Love. My own favorite among titles, if not stories, is Mister Black: A Billionaire SEAL, part of a series of billionaire Navy SEAL books by P. T. Mitchell and others. With his money, his six-pack going on eight-pack abs, his domineering but sensitive ways, and his dedication to serving his country, Mister Black puts it all together.

So money can never be a problem. That alone places the historical novels in a special, conservative niche. While Julie Lessman’s A Hope Undaunted takes its characters into the first year of the Depression and briefly mentions people thrown out of work, pay cuts for others, and the threat of economic disaster for the heroine’s family, those problems disappear in a mist of emotional justice and a joyful ending. History becomes intensely personal. Profound upheavals like the Fronde, the English Civil War, and the Russian Revolution serve only as background to give a little more zest to the characters’ emotional struggles. These upheavals are presented—briefly—as chaos inflicted on the land by ambitious, unworthy people. An exception is Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, first published in Italy in 1957. But even in that book, it is Zhivago’s own struggle to be a free, creative man, and to love Lara and others that matters.

Poor health? It always turns out for the best, as inconvenient spouses, elder brothers standing in the way of a proper duke’s inheritance, or pesky rivals are eliminated to make way for true love and financial security. Nor is any decent person in the novels forced to pay outrageous sums for medical care.

Like guns? In the historical westerns and many modern-day tales, they are everywhere. The hero often gets shot but recovers and catches or kills the bad guys, sometimes with the direct help of his paramour. Stories set in our time venerate the military, police, U.S. marshals, FBI and DEA agents, and cowboys. Since the key to males’ personal worth is nearly unlimited personal freedom, save for responsibilities toward underlings or relatives, it would be absurd to mention gun control.

Medieval, early pirate, paranormal, and prehistoric tales, among others, naturally do not feature gunplay. But almost every hero, even those who sit behind desks, knows how to fight with weapons and his hands, and is very good at it. When not dancing or riding, English nobles of the Regency period–officially 1811-20, but which seems to stretch on forever in dozens of novels–spend a good part of their time at Jackson’s boxing club in London. John Jackson (1765-1845) was in fact the premier boxer of his day and gave lessons and staged fights between gentlemen.

All the heroes are tough, and at the tales’ start they, and often their female counterparts, have set up emotional walls as self-protection after they have been deeply wounded by defective lovers or parents. But the hard-shelled guys gradually open up and lower their guard when they meet the right women. They find that they can love. Pregnancy may complete the males’ transformation, in some cases even if it involves another man’s child. A woman may bring several such children–my highest count so far is six–into the home of the protagonist, who immediately adores them. His inner domesticity suddenly pours forth, to the extent at times of giving up a promising career in favor of a less exciting life centering on the hearth. But he will still be in charge. Men are thus not diminished but are significantly improved and softened by a woman’s touch, especially if she has reproduced or will soon. Children obtained by the leading male in any way are always bright, spunky, and successful in school.

Hero billionaires, slightly lesser modern men, and right-minded British nobles of centuries past always take care of their dependents. Landowners joke with hired cowboys, who are not afraid to tell the young boss the truth and to impart salt of the earth wisdom. Good rich men open factories in rusty Wisconsin towns, providing employment, hope, and income. Britons of earlier times may know worthless nobles and may take over decrepit estates, nearly ruined by the previous lord’s drinking, whoring, and gambling; but the new blood makes every effort to see that tenants’ roofs are thatched, doctors are called, and everyone is fed. For their part, the tenants or employees are always loyal and grateful. They are also shorter, and they literally look up to men who are big in all respects.

The leit motif of many people depending on a rich man or family, repeated again in E. L. James’s super series Shades of Grey, winds determinedly through the romance novels. Shades of Grey hit 100 million sales by early 2014; a second volume sold over a million copies in its first four days. Those figures are among the reasons I have only glanced at her uninspired work.

Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, including uncritical respect. King Charles II of England may have slept around a lot and promoted sexual adventures among the upper crust, but when the Great Fire of 1666 breaks out in London, he and his brother James (later James II), pitch in coolly and courageously to help extinguish the blaze. Apparently they did, but they do a star turn for all authority chosen by God at the fire in Lauren Royal’s (could that be a pseudonym?) Amethyst. Pick a Louis, or England’s feckless Henry II, and he deserves the support of clear-thinking people. Monarchs do the right thing; in Lila Di Pasqua’s Little Red Writing, Louis XIV forgives exposures of elite men’s scurrilous conduct written by a beautiful, intelligent woman because, after the Fronde, he dislikes all male aristocrats. Only the American Revolution appears as an event during which a king’s authority can rightly be questioned.

Turks, Spaniards, Mexicans, and white Creoles rarely impress favorably in romance novels, but black people in Britain or America are uniformly brave, capable, and honest. Heroic whites who own antebellum Southern plantations despise slavery and help their black dependents to become literate and start their own farms. Several tales set in the North in the same period feature dauntless white men who smuggle slaves to freedom. A good white employer hires black people in old Texas and ignores the negative reaction from his neighbors. Seminoles and Senecas in the books I have read are–well, see above.

Such attitudes about race in history are also conservative, as they cleanse the past and suggest that a few righteous whites can make a huge difference in achieving justice. This way of reconstructing history mirrors, for instance, the claim about countless Ohio antebellum houses that were stops on the Underground Railway. There was apparently no racial prejudice among the state’s whites. And look how far we have come from the era of slavery! Since good white guys become billionaires or deserve their inheritance, while worthy black people rise in society, life is always ultimately fair.

As for the women, the plot lines and character development are more complex. While many heroines start as low-born or work as waitresses, and/or have career ambitions extending to opening a small shop, they are always feisty. They are depicted as feminists because they stand up to men verbally and make some claims regarding independence for their gender. Especially in rigid old England, the romantic women disdain their vacuous sisters, who seek only a marriage with a titled, wealthy man. When sex is made explicit, the best women are passionate, and they sometimes enjoy taking the lead. If they get on top, for example, they are described as exercising and enjoying their newly discovered power over the male–that is, their power to please him.

Yet in my reading, even the most outspoken female protagonists quiver almost into unconsciousness at the first kiss from the right man. Women clearly more intelligent and resourceful than the men they pair with wind up enjoying the protection and wealth afforded them by males. Spirited British heroines marry rich, titled aristocrats. The happy couple wants multiple babies, often a big houseful, and family trumps career. I have seen only one, highly negative reference to abortion.

Much of this will sound familiar to those who have read great popular novels of the past (I am not convinced that the novel Dr. Zhivago, as opposed to movie and TV versions, has been all that popular). E. M. (Edith Maude) Hull’s The Sheik, 1919, is extreme, as it centers on the rape and subsequent gradual but ultimately willing domestication of a New Woman. Nonetheless, the tale became hugely successful. The book went through 19 printings in its first year and was made into the movie of the same name, starring Rudolph Valentino. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes (1912) and the almost equally successful Western novel by Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902), feature rugged, hyper-masculine men made whole by a woman’s love. However, the males continue to be the dominant partner, by a long shot. Victoria Cross (Annie Sophie Cory) published the best-seller Anna Lombard in 1901, featuring triumph over death and insanity as the heroine finds a second true love. Politically and socially, all of these books are highly conservative.

Unlike other commentators, I do not trace such themes back to works by Jane Austen. Rather, I am convinced that the ur-novel of the genre, for today’s writers, is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Austen’s novels remain high on romance charts but do not provide enough dramatic pain to serve as models now for more than a few tepid would-be sequels and a romp by Ann Herendeen, Pride / Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Their Forbidden Lovers. Darcy and others now become bisexual; plain old Jane Austen was not spicy enough. On the other hand, Jane Eyre endures a largely bleak childhood, abusive teachers and relatives, penury which reduces her to begging on the street, and the horror of finding out about the crazy wife in the attic. Her financial situation is solved by an inheritance from the blue. She softens the bristly Rochester, who has built walls around his heart. To be sure, the fire in his home and his blindness before Jane returns to him have already reduced him to humility, but the story is ultimately about Jane’s achievement of domestic bliss and true love. Whatever spunk Jane possessed is still there, but she is certain that, “I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest.” This sentiment is repeated by more recent writers ad infinitum, and it is from the vein of travails and happy outcomes in Jane Eyre that the romance novel proceeds in our day. Perish the thought of changing anything substantial in the socio-economic order.

We cannot say that reading any sort of fiction determines one’s political outlook. Yet a steady diet of romance novels, not offset by a more critical examination of the past or more attention to the causes and outcomes of major events, is hardly conducive to deep thought about why societies change. Still, the vast and growing popularity of romances should not be cause for alarm; no one can stand at the ocean’s shore and make the tide retreat. Rather, the academy would do well to consider the influence of these books on the public mind and to see in courses, scholarly work, and public discussions what steps might be taken to critique the values the stories transmit.

At times, romantic tales have been taken seriously outside of literature courses, although so far with inadequate attention to their role in influencing political views. Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance(1984), holds up nicely in discussing what women readers admire in the books. Recently the Journal of Popular Romance Studies has appeared. Much more scholarly gaze will surely follow.

And then there is Donald Trump. He fits well into all of this, although, since he is The Donald, not without certain difficulties. He is the leading billionaire, or so he says, of our day. Beautiful women adore him, and thousands depend on him for work, at least when he is not declaring bankruptcy. He is tall and confident, with a lot of hair and a strong jaw. His image provides clues to why any woman still votes Republican; the idea of a trouble-free life and love calls to a place deep, if often concealed, in many female hearts. This is one of the messages, however updated for the supremely tangled world of relationships we now inhabit, in Peggy Orenstein’s new book Girls and Sex.

Leaving aside Mr. Trump’s small hands and the likelihood that he lacks six-pack abs, he presents himself as the ultimate free, tough man who takes no abuse. He loves his children and his current wife. He is the conservative hero of our day. His is the politics of escape. Take 30 years off his age, give him a gun and maybe a uniform, and he could be the lead of many a romance novel. If he reaches the White House, it’s going to be beautiful, at least in some hearts and for some time.