Romance: the most Enlightened of genres?

I write historical romance primarily (and in terms of work published thus far, exclusively).  And because I am a stickler for historical…if not accuracy at least authenticity, I had no choice but to check out a book on primogeniture and entail in England when I stumbled across it in my local library.  According to the introduction, this is actually an understudied and under-researched topic; the specific text I found was Primogeniture and Entail in England by Zouheir Jamoussi (Cambridge Scholars, 2011).

I read about 2/3 of the book—I skipped the section on Primogeniture in Drama because I was more concerned with the actual history and its use in novels—and found a great deal of interesting perspectives on how inheritance laws and customs affected family dynamics.  I also clarified some aspects of entail that I had mostly grasped but perhaps not fully delineated from previous study of the time and literature set in the time.  If you’re looking for an introduction to entail, I would recommend the book.  It’s easy to read and fills in socio-political details necessary for understanding the issues without losing sight of the real topic.

One of the most striking aspects of the section about primogeniture and its relation to novels of the time was the suggestion that primogeniture is the sacrifice of the nuclear family for the sake of the patrilineal family, and along with the nuclear family is also sacrificed the individual members’ happiness.  For that reason, 19th-century marriage plots quite naturally employ an individual vs. family dynamic, because individuals—both eldest sons and any daughters—were often asked to make matches for reasons that were of benefit to the continuance of the family line but had nothing to do with his or her own wants or even needs as an individual distinct from a family vessel.

This kind of conflict still drives historical romance.  The question of where does one individual draw the line between love of (or duty to) family and love of (or duty to) self is still relevant.  In works of the 18th and 19th centuries, sometimes the individuals triumphed (any Jane Austen novel), and sometimes they succeeded only in dying for the sake of their ideals (Clarissa).  In modern romance novels, the individual triumphs even if they entered into marriage because of their family–that condition is part of the romance DNA.

On a fundamental level the romance genre reaffirms the individual’s right to live by his or her own conscience and happiness.  The conflict between self and family and self and society has been part of philosophy since the discipline’s inception, and in the Enlightenment the individual was ordained the top of the hierarchy.  Yet even today the rights of the individual are questioned in society (in the context of the amorphous collective good).  Romance novels implicitly reject this notion because they are, at heart, about the empowerment of the individual to pursue his or her own happiness.  Therefore, as an individualist and a libertarian, I am quite proud to be working in the one genre that unerringly supports and rewards the individual.

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Filed under Reflections on Romance, Research

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