So a funny thing happened after lots of people read and commented on my post about romance and religion: a series of demands ate my time and made it difficult for me to finish this post. I also found the attention somewhat paralyzing. It’s easier to blog if you think no one is going to read what you have to say—because if people are going to read it, then one is under an obligation to say something interesting and unique.
I am sorry about that; and since I can’t leave the conversation unfinished, and because Gen has some lovely posts on the subject that deserve your attention, I want to offer a few unformed thoughts about how non-inspirational (straight genre) romance may still have a central conversion narrative, but one that substitutes romantic love for religious faith.
Conversion stories and genre romance share a narrative structure. In the opening of each, we generally find our hero or heroine untouched by either romantic love or faith and claiming to be happy without it. But beneath the surface there is an aching lack.
Cue the meet cute! Our hero or heroine is exposed to the charms of their future partner in romance, or the illuminating truth of the gospel or the guiding actions of one of the faithful in conversion stories. The hero or heroine begins to doubt the previous aversion to love or faith.
In the final triumphant act, our hero or heroine is fully converted, often in a rush of some strong emotion forcing them to declare their newfound love or faith. And then they live happily ever after–either in this world, or in Heaven if they’ve been martyred.
My thoughts in this matter have been informed by scholarship on early Christian martyr and conversion narratives. I briefly considered changing my major from English to classics and did take a year of Latin, a Roman history course, and a seminar on gender/family in ancient Greece and Rome. Long before I’d ever read a genre romance, I had read novels from the classical world in which the convertee’s relationship with the converter seemed very…heated.
So in “The Acts of Paul and Thecla,” Thecla’s dad complains, “my daughter … like a spider’s web fastened to the window, is captivated by the discourses of Paul, and attends upon them with prodigious eagerness, and vast delight; and thus, by attending on what he says, the young woman is seduced.”
This pattern continues in medieval accounts. An early version of the life of St. Katharine has the saint telling us, “I am given and married to Jesu Christ, he is my spouse, he is my glory, he is my love, and he is my sweetness, there may no fair words ne [sic] no torments call me from him.” St. Catherine of Siena records this vision, “Then I felt a tumult of joy and an odour of his blood, and my own also, which I desire to shed for the sweet Bridegroom Jesus. And as the desire of my soul waxed and I felt his fear, I said : ‘ Comfort thee, sweet my brother, for we shall soon come to the nuptials ; thou wilt go to them bathed in the sweet blood of the Son of God, with the sweet name of Jesus (may it never leave thy memory), and I wait for thee at the place of justice.”
As William Hansen summarizes in his introduction to “Paul and Thecla” in the Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, early Christian novels were similar to the small-r romantic novels popular at the late second and third centuries CE in that in the romances:
Lovers and lustful persons … fall in love at first sight; similarly, female converts in the apocryphal Acts fall in love with apostle’s message at first hearing. Enamored characters in the romantic novels value chastity above all, even above death, in their faithfulness to each other; the Christians in the apocryphal narratives value chastity even above their relationships to their spouses, in their faithfulness to their religion. Hostile rejected lovers, kindly helpers, women dressing as men, narrow escapes from dangerous situations in which the commitment of a character to his or her ideals is tested, and many other narrative ideas are common to both kinds of novel. Obviously the Christian authors composed their fiction in the idiom of the apostolic novel. (51)
Others have more fully considered contemporary genre romance’s debt to various literary traditions; I particularly recommend Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel, which discusses the 18th and 19th century roots of the genre focusing on what I would call canonical texts (e.g., Austen). But the link to very early conversion narratives hasn’t received its due.
(In Romancing God, which I read after Laura Vivanco’s excellent comments on the first post, Lynn Neal discusses some very late 19th and early 20th century inspirational romance writers like Grace Livingston Hill. I haven’t done the literary scholarship one would have to, but I suspect the genealogy of those books could easily be traced back to something like “Paul and Thecla,” but I digress.)
What I’m trying to say is that in the moment when Christian fiction constituted itself, it took a secular form (the episodic adventure and romance stories popular at the time) and used this form as a metaphor to understand the spiritual relationship.
I’m not really adding much to the critical conversation in making this connection; we’ve all seen Bernini’s Saint Theresa in Ecstasy (if not, it’s above).
But my question is whether contemporary romance is now repeating the process in reverse.
In other words, maybe faith has fallen out of contemporary romance not because of market pressures or self-censorship but because it would be redundant with the extant secular, romantic conversion.
In the initial post, I used Lord of Scoundrels as an example, but even more obvious is paranormal romance. In the subgenre it’s de rigueur to have a normal, human woman and a man who is marked in some way: he’s a vampire, he’s a werewolf, he’s a shape shifter. He’s not human and he is dangerous to her. They are instantly drawn to one another; neither can explain the connection. Sometimes it’s a fated mate thing where he’s relentlessly pursuing the bond and she resists but it’s futile (e.g., several entrants in the Psy/Changeling series). Other times, she wants to convert but he resists because he’s afraid his world will hurt or damage her (see Twilight). Regardless, the book or series ends with her conversion and integration into his lifestyle.
(And this does get reversed, but the woman converting in PNR seems more common. It almost directly contrasts to the man’s religious conversion being more common in inspirational. I’d love to see someone explicate that.)
Small-town contemporary romance features the same thing. I have often joked that the Ur-text in small-town contemporary is the movie Doc Hollywood, but I don’t think that’s entirely wrong. The genre generally begins with either the hero or heroine coming home for some reason and/or with a stranger arriving in town. The reason for the hero/heroine coming to the small town is always time-limited: dealing with the death of a relative, a short-time work assignment, or, in the case of Doc Hollywood, community service after a traffic citation. But against the clock tick-tick-ticking, the hero and heroine fall in love and the out of towner always, ALWAYS, converts to the small town lifestyle.
(Seriously, can anyone point me to an example where they go to the big city at the end? Or compromise in some way?)
Or what about motorcycle club romances–which I’ll admit I have a certain weakness for. In Motorcycle Man, Tack tells Tyra that he’s opened her eyes to a “bigger world,” a world whose rules she must learn if the romance is to succeed.
(And again, I’ve yet to see an MC book in which a heroine converts a hero to the MC lifestyle. Does this exist?)
Historical romance narratives often bear striking similarity to the conversion of St. Augustine. The hero is a reprobate or rake, sowing his wild oats, keeping a mistress, with no intention of settling down. His mother despairs of his behavior and often nags him about it. (In Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do, the hero’s mother actually kidnaps him in order to force him to choose a bride. While St. Monica certainly nagged St. Augustine about converting, she never quite went that far.) The hero promises his mother that he will settle down someday, but not yet. As the teenage Augustine prayed, “Lord, grant me chastity and continence. But not yet.”
But after meeting the heroine, the hero has an epiphany. Perhaps a still, small voice within him says, “You love her.” As Augustine put it, “the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” He believes now in his love for the heroine and is ready to throw aside all dissolution and be faithful to her for life.
I could go on, but I’ll spare you!
What seems significant to me is that so much of genre romance and religious literature hinges on one or both parties changing in some way for the relationship to succeed. These changes are possible and inescapable within the genres’ structures. In romance, the acceptance of love and monogamy are assured, just as the conversion to faith in a religious conversion narrative. Both of these inevitable conclusions are comforting, albeit in different ways. And as Gen will discuss in her post, the secular conversion in genre romance seems related to the inevitable religious one in inspie.