Category Archives: Romance

Calling all Romantic Frygians

Eric Murphy Selinger of DePaul University is organizing a panel at the American Comparative Literature Association’s annual meeting to take place in Vancouver in the spring.  The panel deals with romance in its widest sense.  To his credit, I have never heard a lecture by Selinger in which he doesn’t cite Northrop Frye’s The Secular Scripture or Anatomy of Criticism.  So, if you are working on romance, please consider submitting an abstract.  Instructions for submitting an abstract are available at

Foreign Affairs: Romance at the Boundaries

•  Seminar Organizer: Eric Murphy Selinger, DePaul U

The 2011 ACLA conference theme invokes “the freshness, excitement, and, yes, fear of experiencing the ‘foreign.’”  In the experience of love, that mix of emotions is also on display, not least when the “foreign” other turns out to be ourselves, “shattered” (in Jean-Luc Nancy’s terms) by the impact of desire.  This seminar will explore how literary and popular texts represent the transformative encounter of self and other, mind and body, old self and new, in romantic love.

How do texts enact encounter aesthetically, through contrapuntal discourses, genres, allusions, or traditions?  From Ottoman lyric to Harlequin novel, the literature of love is often highly conventionalized.  How have such texts incorporated the freshness of the “foreign,” renewed within—or slipping past—the boundaries of genre?

What are the politics of xenophilia, within or outside of texts? What ethics (and erotics) shape our acknowledgement, violation, or fetishizing of alterity? How does power shift when texts and tropes of love move from language to language, medium to medium, period to period, audience to audience?

Is scholarship also a “foreign affair”? What pleasures and shames shape academic encounters with popular romance, the abjected Other of “literature”? What happens when men study (and write) texts commonly construed to be “by women, for women,” or when women study (and write) male romance? As queer readers study heteronormative texts, and straight readers, queer ones—when East meets West, and South, North—might love of the “foreign” be read as a critical practice, or criticism, a practice of love?

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


A real rarity: the Edison Studios 1910 film adaptation of Frankenstein — thirteen minutes and one reel, as was the fashion of the time.  It is startling to think that just barely one lifetime after her death, Shelley’s novel was already being adapted at the very dawn of the film industry, making her monster one of the most recognizable of all movie characters, even if that character usually bore little resemblance to her original literary creation.

Today is Mary Shelley‘s birthday (1797-1851).

Frye on Frankenstein in A Study of English Romanticism:

An almost equally remarkable example of Romantic irony is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  The story is not, as it often is said to be, a precursor of science fiction: it is a precursor rather of the existential thriller, of such a book as Camus’ L’Etranger.  The whole point about the monster is that he is not a machine, but an ordinary human being isolated from mankind by extreme ugliness, Blake’s “different face.”  The number of allusions to Paradise Lost in the narrative indicate that the story is a retelling of the account of the origin of evil, in a world where the only creators we can locate are human ones.  Frankenstein hunts down his monster in the same way that moral good attempts to destroy the moral evil that it has itself created: Frankenstein is as much a death principle as his quarry, and is surrounded by the vengeful spirits of his monster’s victims.  (CW 17, 122)

Frye Alert: Sci Fi Frye


Frye appeared as a character (above) in Marvel Comics’ The New Defenders in a story called “The Pajusnaya Consignment.”

iO9, a science fiction blog (“We Come from the Future”), cites Frye in a post today: “How many definitions of science fiction are there?”

[Science fiction is] a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency to myth.” — Northrop Frye.

Here’s Frye on “parallel world” science fiction:

I’ve been reading, more or less at random, in science fiction for varieties of the parallel-world conception which seems to me a possible exit from the present up-down mythical universal dilemma.  Reincarnation is now being trumpeted as practically established scientifically; it isn’t, and I still think there’s a fallacy buried in it somewhere, but there’s probably a pattern it fits.  I read the four volumes of Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverrun” series, but they were a bust.  Now I’m reading Zelazny’s two-volume “Amber” series, which at least has better patter.  They seem to me a development of the Eddison series, where the ideal world is conceived as an archaic one, reminding me of Lawrence’s proposal that if men wanted to fight they should repudiate modern hardware, get into armor and have a good old heroic hack.  Eddison isn’t quite as silly as that sounds, but his fantasy world is simply the old chivalric-romance one back again.  We seem to be in an age of neo-Ariosto. (Northrop Frye Unbuttoned, 254)

Brussels: International Association for the Study of Popular Romance


I have just recently returned from Brussels where I had the privilege of participating in and presenting at the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance’s annual conference (  This year’s conference was a remarkable success.  Scholars were brought together from four continents, a dozen countries, and from all levels of academia to theorise the romance.  Coinciding with the first day of the conference was the publication of the first issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies (

I had applied to the conference because Pamela Regis, author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, was a keynote speaker.  Her book is perhaps the only book since Frye’s The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance to consider the romance in primarily generic, formal and structural terms.  Her lecture, “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?”, as well as An Goris’s response to it, were impressive statements on the state of popular romance scholarship.  Likewise, Celestino Deleyto and Lynne Pearce offered additional keynote lectures that helped us to theorise the popular romance on page and on screen.

This kind of conference was something I had not experienced before and functioned very much like a working group.  (The schedule of the conference is online: Together, as a group of individuals presenting our research, we explored how to study, theorise, and incorporate popular romance in an academic setting.  The study of Romance, of course, is not new to the academy and many courses are offered on the romance from medieval to nineteenth-century literature.  But my colleagues (many of whom I’m very pleased to call my friends) at the IASPR meeting were considering the popular romance novel and film.  We were talking not about Pride and Prejudice but about The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, Nora Roberts (as well as Nora Roberts writing as J. D. Robb), and Japanese manga.  We debated how we might theorise gender, sexuality, race, religion, identity in these novels and films.  In other words, we were very much accepting Frye’s recognition that: “popular literature […] is neither better nor worse than elite literature, nor is it really a different kind of literature” (CW 18, 23).

Leaving this conference was not ‘the happily ever after’ ending of romance novels because it was disappointing that it had to end at all; but it was also, simply put, a brilliant conference organised by a group of exceptional scholars.  I am home now and have returned to my dissertation with new ideas, new texts, new directions (from old?), and new questions about how we might continue to study popular romance.

If you are interested in studies of popular romance, please consider submitting an abstract for next year’s conference which will take place in New York City.  The call for papers has just recently been posted online (

Emily Bronte


Emily in a portrait by her brother Branwell

Today is Emily Bronte‘s birthday (1818-1848).  Earlier posts on Anne and Charlotte here and here.

Frye in “Four Forms of Prose Fiction”:

In novels that we think of as typical, like those of Jane Austen, plot and dialogue are closely linked to those of the comedy of manners.  The conventions of Wuthering Heights are linked rather with the tale and the ballad.  They seem to have more affinity with tragedy, and the tragic emotions of passion and fury, which would shatter the balance of tone in Jane Austen, can be safely accommodated here.  So can the supernatural, or the suggestion of it, which is difficult to get into a novel.  The shape of the plot is different: instead of maneuvering around a situation, as Jane Austen does, Emily Bronte tells her story with linear accents, and she seems to need the help of a narrator, who would be absurdly out of place in Jane Austen.  Conventions so different justify us regarding Wuthering Heights as a different form of prose fiction from the novel, a form we shall here call romance.  (CW 21, 79)

Anne Bronte


On this date Anne Bronte — sister of Emily and Charlotte and author of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall — died (1820 – 1849).

Frye refers regularly to Emily and Charlotte but doesn’t seem to refer separately to Anne.  However, he does cite the Bronte sisters in this notebook entry to make a crucial point about realism and romance:

As time goes on, the greater seriousness attached to myths, as the stories that really happened or are “true” in some special way, eventually shifts, as with a writing culture the sense of truth or correspondence grows, to the life the story reflects.  Thus realism acquires the moral dignity that romances never had, and which realism itself inherits from myth.

Thus in the nineteenth century the “history” of fiction goes through those who can, for the purposes of the alleged historian, be treated as realists.  Thackeray, George Eliot, Trollope, Jane Austen, and carefully selected aspects of Dickens form the main skeleton; Wilkie Collins and Bulwer Lytton, even the Brontes, don’t fit quite so well, and Le Fanu, George Macdonald, William Morris, Rider Haggard, for various reasons, don’t fit at all.  Neither do the Alice books.  My thesis is, of course that romance illustrates structure and realism only content, hence a genuine literary history would put the romances in the centre and make realism peripheral.  (CW 15, 202)

Charlotte Bronte


Today is Charlotte Bronte‘s birthday (1816 – 1855).

Frye in Notebook 44 on Shirley:

[182]  [Charlotte Brontë’s] Shirley: full of characters spouting ideologies, including naturally the author’s own.  Toryism, radicalism, rationalized laissez faire, the sexist ideology Charlotte Bronte knew so much about; economic miseries of Orders in Council; the understandable but mistaken tactics of the Luddites, all dated back to 1812 from the 1840’s to provide the hindsight of the Chartist parallels.  Other books studying these topics directly might have more & better organized information, but if written in ideological language, however detached or partisan, would have to treat all individuals as case histories.  What makes Shirley & other works of fiction irreplaceable is the assimilation of all this to the primary concerns of food (i.e. jobs), sexual love, work & play.

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A Tale of Two Conferences


I have just returned from two conferences: the American Comparative Literature Association and the North Eastern Modern Language Association.  Six flights, ten days.

My attendance at the NeMLA was limited because my flight out of Toronto was cancelled and I arrived a day late; just in time for my own panel, in fact.  However, as I walked among the book stalls at the conference, I was very happy to stumble across Robert Denham’s edition of Northrop Frye’s letters front and centre at the McFarland Press table.  When I wandered by later in the day, it was gone, sold out completely.  So I made my way over to the Queen’s-McGill University Press table to purchase J. Russell Perkin’s Theology and the Victorian Novel – a really rather stunning book.

At the American Comparative Literature Association’s meeting – convened this year in New Orleans (“Nawlins,” if you’re native) – I was part of a seminar discussing the romance.  Unlike many similar settings, the ACLA meeting has excellent organization in that participants send abstracts to the seminar group which also meets each day of the conference.  The result is real discussion on ideas being steadily accumulated by way of ongoing lectures and discussions.  In our seminar group, at least half of the panellists quoted Frye directly, and Frye made his way into almost every discussion period precisely because the romance as a genre is not dying and neither are Frye’s explorations, explications, and expectations of it.

At the ACLA I was quite impressed to find people reading Frye’s work on genre not with disdain but rather with a great deal of respect and curiosity.  His work was applied from the romances of Virginia Woolf right through to Chick-Lit, and from the Anglo-American tradition all the way to Bollywood, Latin America, and Africa.   If Frye is to have his much anticipated “resurgence,” it may well occur in the field of romance studies.  Allow me to conclude by plugging an organisation where this seems most likely to happen, the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance:

At any rate, both conferences re-affirmed and refreshed my own ideas about the romance and Northrop Frye’s continuing influence on the field.  I have four more conferences to prepare for in the next few months, including the annual meeting of the IASPR where Frye will undoubtedly be present.  His work will certainly make a star turn in my talk on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.  So, I look forward to continuing to discover Frye being read closely and carefully by my peers; and, additionally, to posting brief dispatches from these conferences.

Hope to see you all again soon.

William Morris


Portrait of William Morris, by George Frederic Watts, 1870

Today is William Morris‘s birthday.  Morris is a touchstone for Frye when it comes to romance.  Here’s a sample from The Secular Scripture, The Recovery of Myth“:

William Morris is an example of a writer whose attitude to the past is one of creative repetition rather than of return.  Morris admired the Middle Ages to the point of fixation, and yet the social reference of his medievalism is quite different from that of Carlyle, or even Ruskin, who so strongly influenced him.  According to Morris, the Middle Ages appears right side up, so to speak, when we see it as a creation of artists, not in its reflected or projected form as a hierarchy: when we realize that the genuine creators of medieval culture were the the builders and painters and romancers, not the warriors or the priests.  For him, the fourteenth century was the time when, with the Peasants’ Revolt, something like a genuine proletariat appeared on the social scene, it’s political attitude expressed in John Ball’s question, where were the “gentlemen” in the working society of Adam and Eve? In News from Nowhere, the “dream of John Ball” (the title of another work of Morris) comes true: the people in that happy future world are an equal society of creative workers.  They have not returned to the fourteenth century: they have turned it inside out.

A selection of Morris’s wallpaper after the jump.

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Virginity in Book I of “The Faerie Queene”

Copley, Red Cross Knight 1793

John Singleton Copely, The Red Cross Knight, 1793

With this post, Trevor Losh-Johnson joins us as a byline correspondent.

My orientation to romance is by way of The Faerie Queene, where many of the motifs of romance occur in a more condensed form.  And, since Spenser crops up again and again in Frye, it might be worth posting some thoughts regarding the role of virginity in that poem, especially in its first book, which deals with the quest of the Redcrosse Knight.

As she is literally as pure as the driven snow, it is easy to take Una as a prototypical romantic virgin.  In the third essay of Anatomy, Frye notes that Una’s parents, “are Adam and Eve; their kingdom is Eden or the unfallen world, and the dragon, who is the entire fallen world, is identified with the leviathan… Thus St. George’s mission, a repetition of that of Christ, is by killing the dragon to raise Eden in the wilderness and restore England to the status of Eden.” (194). Una’s black wimple, a hymen of sorts, is worn also as a mark of mourning for her parent’s fallen kingdom, and her marriage to Redcrosse (St. George) can only occur once her kingdom is restored.  Indeed, once Redcrosse delivers the kingdom, her veil is lifted to reveal her face, and that deliverance is perhaps a public expression of the perennially deferred, private consummation with Redcrosse.

The doubling of heroines Joe speaks of occurs here in the context of demonic parody.  Duessa, who is allegorically the Whore of Babylon, parodies Una, who is allegorically the one true faith.  An essential function of Duessa is that she briefly tempts and enthralls Redcrosse from this ultimate consummation.  As for the role of gender, virginity is expected of Redcrosse in the context of fidelity.  The purgatorial House of Holiness is attended by, among many virtues, Fidelia and Speranza, who are also virgins.  Their mother is, however, Caelia, who to “a louely fere/ Was lincked, and by him had many pledges dere.”  There may be a buried analogy between the virgin Fidelity in her married mother’s House of Holiness and the virgin Una who shall be married and inherit the regenerated society of her parents.

In the third book, the virtue of Chastity is also framed in the context of fidelity, and it is expected that there will be lots of sex when Britomart finally unites with Artegall.  It is noteworthy that Britomart is to embody the virtue of Chastity, and not the flat virginity that Una embodies until her kingdom is released.  But this may have its basis less in the manifold politics of gender than in the structure of the allegorical romance.  Generally, as far as I can dimly see, the characters and stations that populate the quest are objectified projections of the central figure.  In this solipsistic world, Redcrosse is anatomized by the other characters, and Una’s virginity may be a static expression of his own chastity.  To whatever extent this can be said, I think that the progress of the first book’s quest may be read as an alignment between the progress from the fallen world to Eden and the progress from a hostile virginity to sexual chastity.  It also parallels the process of condensation from the literature of doppelganger heroines to the chastity of Adam and Eve that Frye explores in Words With Power.

As convoluted as this may sound, there seems to be in romance a connection between the upwards movement from virginity to chastity and Frye’s discussion of the Eden metaphor, to wit, “What is significant is the way in which poets preserve and emphasize the metaphorical identity of the bride’s body and the garden, which enables them to associate sexual emotion with visions of a renewed nature.” (198).