What is it about a romance that keeps people reading it generations after it was published? Even centuries? The three romances I talked about last time, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights, were all eventually enshrined as literature. But so were Pamela by Samuel Richardson (the first English novel and the first English romance, too), and Evelina (the first English novel by a woman) by Fanny Burney. Only English majors read them anymore, but most romance readers have read the other three. Why, despite the distance of time and the changes in social ways, and even the foreignness of reading about a woman from another country, why does the plight of Jane Eyre still burn in our imaginations?
Why is it that the best selling romances of 100 years ago, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall by Charles Major (they did a Mary Pickford movie about it, that’s how popular that romance was), or Janice Meredith (did you know that its socialite author, Paul Leicester Ford, was murdered by his brother?), or To Have and To Hold (Mary Johnston’s finest story features a villain unselfconsciously named Lord Carnal) no longer capture the imagination? I recommend all three, but they aren’t likely to be found in every library, let alone in many bookstores.
What about The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy? Or the even more swashbuckling romances of Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood and Scaramouche among them? All have been made into movies, so millions more people have been made aware of them. Have you read them?
Actually, although I have read at least twenty obscure books by Sabatini (my library had a complete set), I never read Scaramouche. And nothing I have encountered as an adult has urged me to repair that omission. Romance readers and writers do not refer to it. Maybe because the point of view was male, not female?
Two other books published during that same period, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, keep being referenced by romance readers and writers. These books are still being read, despite being 70 plus years old. Their heroines are still being talked about. In fact, in the romance world, Gone with the Wind is often looked upon as the classic. Personally, I tried to read it years ago and got turned off and I haven’t been back. But most romance writers have opinions about Scarlett O’Hara, a standout heroine if ever there was one. Even having never read the book or seen the movie, I know that she is a memorable combination of strengths and weaknesses. Sooner or later, I’m going to read that book, because people keep talking about her.
Then we get Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, and a heroine of a different stripe. Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Cathy Earnshaw, and Scarlett O’Hara were strong women. In Rebecca, we get a protagonist who is such a total wuss that She Doesn’t Even Have a Name. The author cannot any more clearly tell the reader that this character, the second wife, is merely a conduit for the story and has no importance in it. And it’s so true. And so necessary, because who else but a naive stranger would think of Max de Winter as anything but a loser? His wife was screwing around on him with everybody, and he stood by and pretended that it wasn’t happening, secretly humiliated for years. And then he finally murdered her, only to discover that she even orchestrated this worm-turning action. Yep. A total loser. But the second wife doesn’t see him as that, which is why we need her as the narrator, to imbue with tale with some of the rosy hue of romance. The story really is about Rebecca, a larger-than-life personality whose hold on people even after her death is startling. Like Cathy from Wuthering Heights, Rebecca lives life on her own terms, refusing to behave the way society and morality dictate. She’s probably the first modern antiheroine. Still, following that old novelistic (and societal) standard that any woman who does not maintain sexual purity must be punished, this bad girl ends up with a medical death sentence that she turns into a convoluted husband-assisted suicide-as-murder.
What so plainly characterizes both Scarlett and Rebecca is their determination to have life their way. They don’t quite achieve that goal, at least not permanently. But romance readers keep going back to them, because the sheer passion of such determination is heady. Written in an era during which explicit sexuality was not legal to describe, the burning selfishness at the core of these two heroines stands in for sexual expression, too. That’s probably another reason why they still stand out. There’s enough symbolism in Rebecca to keep a college English lit class talking at length. It remains to be seen if these two novels will become the staples of school reading lists (let me know if they’re on yours). But it’s a sure bet that women will continue reading them for a long time to come.