Writers of the Purple Prose

By Poison Ivy,

Romances are always being accused of purple prose. But all fiction used to be purple prose. I just checked out an antique novel that is an excellent example of purple prose, and it’s not strictly speaking a romance although there is a romance a the core of it. A Heart of Flame, by Charles Fleming Embree, was published in 1901. It’s a tale of Santa Fe, in which the power of the Roman Catholic church and dislike of the church embroil the main characters in turmoil that leads to several deaths. The characters mostly have Mexican names, but some are not Mexican despite that, following the hypocritical 19th century custom of the main characters being of the elite no matter what (in this case, of the ethnic elite, but in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, of the social elite). Everybody gives long, passionate speeches. This is serious purple prose.

Or is it merely Victorian prose? The difference between purple prose and Victorian flowing periods is indistinguishable. As far as I can tell, the one style just naturally followed the other. But by 1900, there was a noticeable split in styles. Some books, such as Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, were compactly written, even though their ideals were described in the style typical of the day. In other words, Anthony Hope managed to tell a lot of story without a lot of fluff while still giving a stylistic nod to traditional values. Zane Grey, the American western writer, specialized in very realistic, even terse dialogue, but his descriptive passages were as romantic and effusive as those we associate with romances or with Victorian writers. Then there were others, such as E. Phillips Oppenheim, whose pompous, overwritten potboilers (such as The Great Impersonation, 1920) about international intrigue were the spiritual grandfathers to Dan Brown’s vastly popular modern potboiler, The Da Vinci Code.

Yet at the same time, there were strains of newer thought informing writers’ styles. Although Stephen Crane certainly was a modernist and he wrote before Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway rightly gets credit for popularizing a no-frills, direct writing style that revolutionized fiction in the 20th century. Even so, romances and other kinds of novels were still being written in the purple prose manner during most of Hemingway’s career. The Baroness Orczy wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1903, but kept writing in that same style until her death decades later in 1940. Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche became a bestseller in 1921, but his oeuvre of dashing, romantic novels of gallantry and romance were written during the period stretching from 1900 to 1950. Zane Grey’s westerns, including Riders of the Purple Sage, were written from the early 1900s through to his death in 1939, and he was frequently accused of purple prose. And Georgette Heyer, the doyenne of the Regency romance, started writing in the mid-1920s and continued until just prior to her death in 1974, always using the roundabout style of the language of the prior century. This was happening at the very same time that Hemingway was writing his spare, almost terse novels and Mickey Spillane was doing his tough guy genre version of the same in titles such as My Gun is Quick. At the same time, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler were writing near poetry as novels. Yes, they had serious stories to tell. But their use of language was more elaborate than Hemingway’s even as they tried to tell their stories in a spare style.

There isn’t just one strain of writing style at any given time, and it seems clear to me that the purple prose of which romances are accused is simply the direct descendant of the popular Victorian style. Most of us don’t get to read the third-rate fiction of the Victorian age, but it’s available in some used bookstores, and it’s a revelation. Cheesy, overwritten, and saccharine all come to mind as adjectives to describe one strain of popular writing back then. Given that, it’s not surprising that well over 100 years later, we still have some popular writing that is similarly overwrought.

Are today’s romances purple prose? Most writers have dropped off their heavy descriptions of scenery (which are unnecessary in a visual age; we all know what an elephant looks like), and the 19th century preoccupation with dialects (radio and other media can tell us how people’s accents sound). But in romances, there can be very detailed scenery descriptions, and sexually descriptive passages have been well-upholstered and embroidered. Erotica and romantica, both of which feature extremely detailed sex scenes, are among the most popular subgenres of women’s fiction today. But then, so are inspirational romances that have no sex whatsoever and that specifically do not embroider any sensual or sexual descriptions (e.g., a kiss is just a kiss, no details). And at the very same time, we have various paranormals and urban fantasy stories, many of which are categorized as romance by their publishers. Some are into lots of descriptive detail, and others are not.

Thus it is hard to make a flat statement of fact without hedging it with exceptions. Is romance writing by definition purple prose? Possibly. But then, all dramatic writing may be equally defined as such. If I never read another literary novel that’s a coming-of-age story about a poor-but-plucky young person who suffers amazing abuse, I’ll be glad. In fact, I intend to avoid all such novels. We choose our poison, as they say. Mine is romance, whether purple, pink, or whatever.