Category Archives: Romance

Erik Satie


“Trois Gymnopedies,” 1888

Today is Erik Satie‘s birthday (1866-1925).

From “Music and the Savage Breast,” Canadian Forum (April 1938):

When men ceased to believe that the sun went around the earth, they gave up the music of the spheres. By that time music was a flourishing art form, and its development did a great deal to clear up the superstitions connected with it, which were based on ignorance like all superstitions. But while the superstitions have gone, the terrific emotional impact of music has not. Cultivated music refines and canalizes this impact; popular music gives it to us straight in the midriff. And popular music, it should be noted, is musical drama; that is, it is associated with dancing and marching, which are forms of dramatic action. It is directly descended from the war dance and the fertility rite. Every high school girl knows what a powerful erotic stimulant music is, and everyone interested in promoting wars knows that music can turn a decent man or woman into a murderous maniac. (CW 29, 89)

Satie noted that “Trois Gymnopedies” was inspired by Flaubert’s Salammbo. Frye in Notebook 34 makes an interesting observation regarding that novel in relation to the historical novel and the romance:

The purely historical novel I think represents a bookish & antiquarian failure of nerve, unless it is symbolic recreation of an archetype, as Salammbo of Druidism or Ivanhoe of chivalry. The distinction between the epic & the romance is very important when applied to historical novels. (CW 15, 25)

Which is to say that Salammbo incorporates both the “war dance and the fertility rite,” which is perhaps reflected in the wistful melancholy of Satie’s composition.

H. Rider Haggard


A clip from the very cheesy Hammer Films 1965 adaptation of She, with the imperious Ursula Andress playing “She who must be obeyed”

H. Rider Haggard died on this date in in 1925 (born 1856).

Frye in The Secular Scripture on the archetype of the earth-mother and Haggard’s She:

In the theme of the apparently dead and buried heroine who comes to life again, one of the themes of Shakespeare‘s Cymbeline, we seem to be getting a more undisplaced glimpse of the earth-mother at the bottom of the world. In later romances there is another glimpse of such a figure in Rider Haggard’s She, a beautiful and sinister female ruler, buried in the depths of a dark continent, who is much involved with various archetypes of death and rebirth. In the Xenophon of Ephesus the hero meets an old man who continues to love and live with his wife even though she has been embalmed as a mummy: similar themes are also in Haggard’s story. Embalmed mummies suggest Egypt, which is preeminently the land of death and burial, and largely because of its Biblical role, of descent to a lower world. (CW 18, 75-6)

Benjamin Disraeli: True Blue Conservative

httpv:// Disraeli addresses Parliament in Mrs. Brown

Benjamin Disraeli died on this date in 1881 (born 1804).

It cannot be said too often: North American politicians who call themselves “conservatives” are no such thing.  They are corporatists. Below is some of the notable legislation passed during the arch-conservative Disraeli’s ministry. This is what the record of a real conservative looks like: offering assistance to those in need in the name of social stability; promoting justice for the sake of sound social health. Just the titles of this legislation might give contemporary “conservatives” a Victorian case of the vapors. Where are the tax cuts for the rich and for corporations? Where is the corporate welfare? Disraeli extended the franchise, offered assistance to the poor, and enhanced the rights and protections of workers, including the right to form trades unions:

Artisans’ and Laborers’ Dwellings Improvement Act

Public Health Act

Factory Acts

Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act

In response to these reforms, Liberal-Labour MP Alexander Macdonald told his constituents in 1879: “The Conservative party have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty.”

It would raise hurricanes of laughter all along the political spectrum to suggest that today’s “conservatives” might do anything remotely resembling this now.

Maybe a large part of the reason is that Disraeli was extraordinarily accomplished. However “conservatives” regard themselves, glad handing the corporate elite does not round out a world-view.

Here’s Frye making reference in “Dickens and the Comedy of Humours” to Disraeli the novelist; a writer who gives expression to the enduring foundations of romance, despite the conventional thinking:

In general, [it is assumed that] the serious Victorian fiction writers are realistic and the less serious ones are romancers. We expect George Eliot or Trollope to give us a solid and well-rounded realization of the social life, attitudes, and intellectual issues of their time; we expect Disraeli and Bulwer-Lytton, because they are more “romantic,” to give us the same kind of thing in a more flighty and dilettantish way; from the cheaper brands, Marie Corelli or Ouida, we expect nothing but the standard romance formulas. (CW 10, 287)

As Frye goes on to say in his examination of the work of Dickens, the second-tier status of romance is a long way from the truth. Writers of romance like Disraeli are closer to the imaginative bedrock of literature and life than any realist. “Conservatives” who by denying assistance to the poor and justice to society at large to further enrich a bogus crony-capitalisim may flatter themselves as living in “the real world.” But it is in fact not much of a world and, because it’s unsustainable, it is not even real; just temporarily realized and doomed to fail.

Stanislaw Lem


From Steven Soderburgh’s 2002 film adaptation of Solaris. This clip is especially beautiful; you’ll want to see it (although it is not, unfortunately, embedded; click on the image and hit the YouTube link)

Stanislaw Lem died on this date in 2006 (born 1921).

Frye read Lem and alluded to him regularly to illustrate the relationship between science fiction and romance:

The twofold focus on reality, inside and outside the mind at once, is particularly important when we are reading what is called fantasy. Stanislaw Lem’s story of a kingdom created from robots, The Seventh Sally, raises questions that have tormented us for centuries, about the relation of God or the gods to man, about the distinction between an organism and a mechanism, about the difference between what is created and what has come into existence by itself. (CW 18, 190)

Bernardo Bertolucci


The actual last tango from Last Tango in Paris (Video not embedded; click on the above image and hit the YouTube link)

Today is Bernardo Bertolucci‘s birthday (born 1940).

Frye on violence and sexuality in Secular Scripture:

In romance violence and sexuality are used as rocket propulsions, so to speak, in an ascending movement. Violence becomes melodrama, the separating of heroes from violence, angels of light from giants of the dark.  Sexuality becomes a driving force with a great deal of sublimation in it. In the traditional romance, where the heroine is so often a virgin reaching her first sexual contact on the last page, the erotic feeling is sublimated for the action of the story. (CW 18, 120)

The Formula of Romance


The Axis of Awesome: Forty four-chord songs in five and a half minutes

I have always been inspired by Frye’s work, and his Secular Scripture in particular has been instrumental in how I conceive the romance. My studies have focused on a small detail from Frye’s theory of romance. In The Secular Scripture, he writes:

One can, of course, understand an emphasis on virginity in romance on social grounds. In the social conditions assumed, virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave.  Behind all the ‘fate worse than death’ situations that romance delights in, there runs the sense that a woman deprived of her virginity, by any means, except a marriage she has at least consented to, is, to put it vulgarly, in an impossible bargaining position.  But the social reasons for the emphasis on virginity, however obvious, are still not enough for understanding the structure of romance. (CW 18, 49-50)

Something about this notion never seemed right to me.  I could agree that virginity served only a structural purpose, but I was left wondering how it could be structural when it only referred to female characters.  Why was there not a male virgin in romance?  To this end, I have written a dissertation on the subject.  I have surveyed well over one hundred romance novels that include virgins, and I have developed something of an anatomy of male virgins in romance.

While laying out this dissertation, however, I was reminded of the issue of “formula,” because romances are of course “formulaic.”  That is, all romances follow a narrative and must have so many key characters, episodes and so on.  Indeed, many critics of romance note this.  Pamela Regis, for instance, argues that there are eight key requirements:

Eight narrative events take a heroine in a romance novel from encumbered to free. In one or more of the scenes, romance novels always depict the following: the initial state of society in which heroine and hero must court, the meeting between heroine and hero, the barrier to the union of heroine and hero, the attraction between the heroine and hero, the declaration of love between heroine and hero, the point of ritual death, the recognition by the heroine and hero of the means to overcome the barrier, and the betrothal. These elements are essential. (30)

Even with these eight elements, however, romance is remarkably varied. Harlequin Publications, for example, produces romances that have varying levels of eroticism and sexuality — and even a NASCAR setting, for those looking for one.  But all romances evidently possess Regis’s eight requirements.  So the question becomes: why do literary critics in general look down upon formulaic fiction?  In many regards, it seems that sticking to and following the formula presents its own challenges, including, how does any writer make a formula new?

So, with this in mind, I am posting the video above to illustrate the point: just four chords can produce forty different pop songs for the purposes of a single comedy bit.  Why shouldn’t eight elements of an expansive literary formula produce any number of romances?

William James

Today is William James‘s birthday (1842-1910).

Frye in The Secular Scripture cites James to illustrate a familiar theme; the illusion of reality and the reality of illusion.

When we look at social acts as rituals, we become at once aware of their close relation to a good deal of what goes on within the mind.  Anyone reading, say, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience must be impressed by the extraordinary skill with which many people arrange their lives in the form of romantic or dramatic ritual, in a way which is neither wholly conscious nor wholly unconscious, but a working alliance of the two.  William James takes us into psychology, and with Freud and Jung we move into an area where the analogy to quest romance is even more obvious.  In a later development, Eric Bernes’s “transactional” therapy, we are told that we take over “scripts” from our parents, which it is our normal tendency to act out as prescribed and invariable rituals, and that all possible forms of such scripts can be found in any good collection of folk tales.  Romance often deliberately descends into a world obviously related to the human unconscious, and we are not surprised to find that some romances, George MacDonald’s Phantastes, for example, are psychological quests carried out in inner space.  Such inner space is just as much of a “reality,” in Wallace Stevens’s use of the word, as the Vanity Fair of Thackeray: Vanity Fair itself, after all, is simply a social product of the illusions thrown up by the conflicts within the inner consciousness.  When we look back at the Cistercian developments of Arthurian legend, with their stories of Galahad the pure and his quest for the Holy Grail, we see that an identity between individual and social quests has always been latent in romance.  (CW 18, 41)

Umberto Eco


A short piece about Eco produced in 2009

Today is Umberto Eco‘s birthday (born 1932).

Frye in an interview with Eco in Milan:

Eco: You have spoken of romance as a polarized narrative — good and evil, black and white — a structure similar to that of chess. In The Secular Scripture, you refer briefly to the fact that the university unrest of 1968 produced “manic” situations; and you also suggested (even while attributing the idea to others) that there was a link between the polarized paradigm of war (us versus them, the enemy) and the structures of television and melodrama.  If this is so, do you see the new taste for romance as the result (even the sublimation of) that generation’s point of view?

Frye: I referred earlier to the two levels of realism: the level that accepts the veneer of social authority, and the level that penetrates and goes beyond it and that is the genuine form of realism.  Advertising and propaganda reinforce the veneer, the appearance, of the social, and the invention of television has made the impact so overpowering that, in America, the youngest generation, starting from at least 1965, has been pushed almost to the point of hysteria.  It has not been able to grasp a sense of the reality that goes beyond the veneer: it has not produced a Marx who could offer a comprehensive understanding of how the surface was contrived, as Marx did in his analysis of capitalism.  All that they could do was adapt and regurgitate the categories of television itself: the struggle between the good guys and the bad, between the forces of light and darkness.  Enemies were described in paranoid terms such as “the politico-military establishment.”  I don’t see how a different point of view is realistically possible for sensitive, imaginative young people, although there are, certainly, enormous dangers inherent in transforming a conflict into an apocalypse.  The most promising approach is to see the struggle as a clash of ideas rather as one of individuals.  (CW 24, 447-8)

Here’s John Ayre’s account of the interview in his biography of Frye:

In Milan…Frye was taken out to dinner by an admiring Bologna-based semiologist by the name of Umberto Eco representing the journal alfabeta.  While Eco had consulted with his fellow editors about appropriate questions, the “interview” itself was an impromptu performance.  Far from thrusting a microphone in his face, Eco took Frye out to dinner and scribbled out questions on a napkin for Frye to answer later based on the recently translated The Secular Scripture.  Eco himself was just a half-year away from finishing the phenomenally successful The Name of the Rose, and his non-fictional Postscript showed interesting echoes from Frye’s book. (370)

And, finally, here’s Frye in an interview conducted for Acta Victoriana:

The distinction between popular culture and highbrow culture assumes that there are two different kinds of people, and I think that’s extremely dubious.  I don’t see the virginal purity of highbrow literature trying to keep itself unsullied from the pollutions of popular culture.  Umberto Eco wasn’t any less a semiotics scholar for writing a bestselling romance [The Name of the Rose].  There isn’t a qualitative distinction.  It just doesn’t exist.  And I think that the tendency on the part of the mass media as a whole is to abolish this distinction.  (CW 24, 766)

Call for Papers


A Call For Proposals 
 The Third Annual International Conference on Popular Romance: “Can’t Buy Me Love? Sex, Money, Power, and Romance,” New York City,
 June 26-28, 2011

The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) [] is seeking proposals for innovative panels, papers, roundtables, discussion groups, and multi-media presentations that contribute to a sustained conversation about romantic love and its representations in global popular media. We welcome analyses of individual books, films, television series, websites, songs, etc., as well as broader inquiries into the reception of popular romance and into the creative industries that produce and market it worldwide.

This conference has four main goals:

  • To explore the relationships between the conference’s key thematic terms (sex, money, power, and romantic love) in the texts and contexts of popular romance, in all forms and media, from a variety of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives
  • To foster comparative and intercultural analyses of these recurring themes, by documenting and/or theorizing the ways that different nations, cultures, and communities think about love and sex, love and money, love and power, and so on, in the various media of popular romance
  • To explore how ideas and images of romantic love—especially love as shaped by issues of sex, money, or power—circulate between elite and popular culture, between different media (e.g., from novel to film), and between cultural representations and the lived experience of readers, viewers, listeners, and lovers
  • To explore the popular romance industry–publishing, marketing, film, television, music, gaming, etc.—and the roles played by sex, money, power, and love in the discourse of (and about) the business side of romance

After the conference, proceedings will be subjected to peer-review and published.

Please submit proposals by January 1, 2011 and direct questions to: <>.

We are currently pursuing funds to help defray the cost of travel to New York City for the conference. If these funds become available, we will notify those accepted how to apply for support from IASPR.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Today is Robert Louis Stevenson‘s birthday (1850-1894).  Even Google is celebrating, as you can see from its Treasure Island-themed link icon (above).

Frye in “Third Variation: The Cave” in Words with Power:

In most descent mythis there is some formidable enemy — Minotaur or dragon or demon like Asmodeus — to be fought and overcome, and frequently this enemy is blocking the goal of the descent.  The goal is often, in popular romance especially, a treasure of gold or jewels, as in Treasure Island or Tom Sawyer or Poe’s Gold Bug. . . The type of society that searches for such treasure is an instensely selective one.  In popular literature the searchers may be boys or antisocial groups (pirates and the like) that boys find it easy to identify with.  The standards of admission often reverse those of more conventional societies. . . Often the dragon-guarded hoard is a metaphor for some form of wisdom or fertility that is the real object of descent.  (CW 26, 203)