Drawing on Bakhtin, Kamblé reads the romance novel as "as a form that attempts to deal with the explosion of meaning facing a society encountering a new world—meaning that it can only process through a protagonist possessing multiple identities" (30). Unlike the static hero of the epic, the hero of the novel wears "multiple masks" that attempt to navigate this explosion of meaning. For the romance novel hero, these masks typically take on one or more of four forms, what we might refer to as tropes of the genre: the mask of the capitalist, the soldier, the heterosexual, and the Caucasian. Kamblé devotes a chapter to each of these heroic guises.
Kamblé points out that before World War II, heroes and heroines in most Mills & Boon publications were of the petit bourgeoisie, with the wildly wealthy businessman emerging only in the 1950s, with the rise of the postwar era of free trade. The Mills & Boon romance formula, played out over the course of thousands of novels published between the mid-20th century and the present, is the "fantasy... of financial security, which is guaranteed solely by an alliance with the intruding force of free market capitalism" (35).
Kamblé argues against reading this narrative pattern as simply "another example of the way mass culture creates false consciousness and encourages readers to accept bourgeois ideology" (38). Instead, she urges us to view the hostility between heroes and heroines before the love declaration climax, as well as the "relatively limited narrative space" the novels devote to their happy endings, not as a wholehearted embrace of free market capitalism, but instead a "voicing of the conflicted British response to the gradual dismantling of the British welfare state, the privileging of employer interests over those of employees, and the increasing bent toward privatization in the postwar years" (38).
Kamblé presents little in the way of specific evidence from Mills & Boon romances to support her claims, perhaps assuming that its capitalist hero is so familiar he needs no introduction. I certainly recall plenty of high-powered businessmen heroes from my own 1970s and 80s Harlequin reading. But I can also recall other types, too: a painter, a playwright, a playboy-about-town. Kamblé's arguments made me wonder: what percentage of Mills & Boon/Harlequins feature the capitalist, as compared to men in other professions? And did that percentage change over time? Or would Kamblé argue that a hero's stated profession doesn't matter, because all the M&B/H heroes are capitalists at heart?
In the second half of this opening chapter, Kamblé's focus shifts from England to America, and from category to single-title romance. Strangely enough, it also shifts from contemporary to historical romance, using novels by Loretta Chase, Lisa Kleypas, Gaelen Foley, and Judith McNaught to suggest that while American romance writers focus far less on cross-class antagonism, their romances still demonstrate an immersion in "business-speak and the ethos of late capitalism" (43). The heroes of English-set historical romances written by Americans may be littered with dukes and viscounts, but these are aristocrats in dress only, really capitalists under their greatcoats and pantaloons. Kamblé's analysis is not always persuasive here—is the prenuptial legal wrangling in which Lord of Scoundrels' Sebastian and Jessica engage truly in the "register of the corporate takeover"? Or rather a historically accurate reflection of the common practice of negotiated marriage settlements between aristocrats in this period? What of the contract negotiations between an aristocrat and his courtesan in Foley's novel? Are these really (or only) reflections of "the pervasive nature of industrial and postindustrial capitalism's worldview," or do they reflect the pre-capitalist systems in place during the periods in which these novels are set? (Kleypas's novels may be the exception, here; they have always struck me as quite different than the majority of historical romances, in their pointed exploration of emerging capitalism and their explicit rejection of the non-working aristocratic male in favor of their more forward-thinking industrialists and businessmen).
Kamblé concludes this chapter with a discussion of more recent novels that voice more overt reservations about the emergence of multinational capitalism than did earlier romances, novels that explore capitalism's dark side: J. D. Robb's In Death series and Judith McNaught's Someone to Watch Over Me. Kamblé's analysis of the McNaught is persuasive, but I did wonder if the In Death books' reservations about capitalism might be due as much to the sub-genre—dystopian futurism—in which Robb has chosen to write as to change in social attitudes toward global capitalism.
Kamblé's second chapter shifts from the boardroom to the battlefield, exploring the proliferation of warrior-heroes in the romance genre. I found this chapter far more persuasive than the book's first, in part because its argument is more complex, and in part because its subject is far narrower: romances with soldiers as main characters.
In part a reflection of capitalism ("if the romance genre is tied to the economy... it would also echo current public rhetoric that calls for a defense of (capitalist) democracy by means of war") (61), the warrior hero has proven far more malleable over the course of the genre's history than his capitalist counterpart. Early twentieth-century romances, Kamblé argues, embraced wholeheartedly the nationalism underlying the heroic warrior romance lead. But the changing environment in the post WWII years "led to the genre's evolution, with heroes (and plots) adapted in ways that break away from the previous wholehearted faith in wars fought by Western democracies" (63). Kamblé's analysis and documentation of the changes the warrior has undergone during the second half of the 20th century, and the opening decades of the 21st, is quite persuasive, highlighting both the continuing presence of a Cold War, America-first attitude in genre romance, even as new elements of self-doubt and self-critique begin to emerge in warrior hero depictions, particularly in books written after the Gulf War and 9/11.
Previous scholars have argued persuasively that increasing demands for gender equality during 1960s and 70s correlate with an increase in the level of machismo displayed by popular romance heroes. In her third chapter, Kamblé suggests another possible cause for the rise of the overbearingly masculine hero: "increasing demands for an end to institutionalized homophobia" (88). Romance attempts to allay anxieties about the (purported) threat posed by homosexuality to the heterosexual family by "adapting its hero trait into the antithesis of the gay male (or the idea of the gay male, at any rate) who is emerging from the closet in the postwar years" (89). This is an intriguing claim, one that I expected Kamblé to demonstrate by comparing romance heroes to their (inevitably wimpy) male rivals. But her analysis overlooks this avenue, making instead a series of more indirect claims about Mills & Boon romances: the "marriage-in-name-only" trope reassures us that "the institution of marriage nurtures love between men and women"; the rise of the alpha male, who embodies no feminine (or, in other words, unmasculine) qualities, as would a stereotypical homosexual; the prevalence of heroes from more patriarchal cultures (especially Latin and Middle Eastern), assuming that patriarchal equates with heterosexism; plots which express indirect anxieties about men's abandoning marriage (and turning toward other men) because of women's refusal (often masked as inability) to give them children.
|Two couples in the Castro in the 1960s|
Kamblé concludes by asserting that the current political debates over gay marriage in the U.S. echo the gay rights activism of the 1960s, and thus "the renewed debate on the right of gay individuals to marry and the swing to conservativism among the American populace on this issue, will see the genre bringing back the mechanism of controlling social anxiety" (124). While she acknowledges the increase in romance novels with gay characters, and makes passing reference to the emergence of a the huge market for gay romance since the turn of the century, she reads the reemergence of the alpha male over the past decade as a clear sign of increasing social anxiety about the homosexual threat to heterosexual marriage.
I found Kamble's theories in this chapter fascinating, but something kept me back from embracing them fully. My own lack of knowledge about the rise of gay rights? Questions about whose anxieties were being addressed (general cultural ones? Publishers'? Female romance readers'?)? Or the fact that correlation (the rise in gay rights movements occurring at the same time as the rise in overbearing heroes) is not always causation? I'm not entirely certain.
|Singh's multiracial romance: but|
would you know it from the cover?
Few critics have been willing to take up the entire genre of popular romance as their subject, wary of falling into trap of making overly simplistic, and thus misleading, generalizations, as the earliest analyses of the field so often did. I applaud Kamblé for her ambition in tackling the entire genre, as well as for her demonstration of the rewarding insights that result when scholars acknowledge that popular romance is far from an unchanging monolithic body, but rather a rich storehouse of shifting attitudes towards vital social, historical, and political change. While I may not always have agreed with her conclusions about particular texts, each of her arguments made me think, and think hard, about my own definitions of, and assumptions about the field and the changes it has undergone over its decades-long history. I look forward to seeing how scholars in the future will build upon (and/or challenge) Kamblé's intriguing claims about the field.
Castro couples: Crawford Barton, Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California
Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: