Romance Readership and The Pursuit for Empowerment.

“Chronicles of Female Triumph”[1]: Romance Readership and The Pursuit of Empowerment:

Are readers of the romance genre oppressed by their seemingly unquestionable subscription to a narrative whereby a fundamentally patriarchal relationship exists at its centre? This is the underlying interrogation to which these readers are constantly subjected to; stereotypes surrounding the portrait of the romance reader mostly pertain to negative images of unintelligent, uneducated, or even irrational women- often based upon notions of novel’s content themselves. Indeed, for if the romance novels themselves are observed as poorly written and formulaic, then portraits of the readers that transpire are heavily partial to the content they are reading. Such damnations are not new phenomenon brought in recent inspections- if one looks back at the standard of 18th century reaction to popular fiction for women, it is the same line of argument that remains to be a point of contention today. Mary Wollstonecraft, criticised the romance novels of her time for constructing women preoccupied with romantic a fantasy that can never truly be realised- for making them “creatures of sensation”[2]

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 Romance reading has been examined by scholars through a similar lens, though, as demonstrated by Mary Wollstonecraft, the critics who appear to level the most serious charges against the genre are women, for they claim that female readers (and writers) of romance novels are oppressed by their commitment to a narrative whereby an essentially patriarchal relationship exists at its core; when Germaine Greer, in her monumental account The Female Eunuch (1970), stood boldly against the romance’s “utterly ineffectual heroine”,[3] she did so as a stance against the romance’s apparent antagonism toward the intrinsic principles of (second-wave) feminism. Indeed, for Greer unequivocally positions the romance novel as anti-feminist, “escapist literature of love and marriage voraciously consumed by housewives”[4] – of bored readers who simply elect to pass through their time rather than challenge it. This homogenous grouping of romance readers as strictly ‘housewives’ is significant. Greer’s declarative is intended as a damning one, for it suggests that readers captured by the genre are the same specific people who subject themselves to their own demise by willingly electing to become the ‘housewife’ figure in the first place, serving no purpose other than in their secondary role as wife and mother. Thus, her account, in making the case for the feminist agenda, renders itself an internalised attack on women themselves, rather than the patriarchal system they are subjected to by default; it infers that the romance novel and the housewife are mutually deserving of damnation because of the subjugation they inflict upon themselves in perpetuating patriarchal hegemonic values. Thus, emerging from critical accounts such as this one, despite attempts to recover or defend her, is a notion of a passive and apathetic reader who believes the delusions of the romantic fantasies she consumes. Such a portrayal is harder to confront than other stereotypes that can be disproven with statistics. For example, while the average romance reader may work “outside the home and is college educated—not uneducated or unintelligent”,[5] it is much harder, however, to demonstrate that the ‘average’ romance reader is not merely passively waiting for Prince Charming to rescue her in her own life.[6]

 This stereotyping of readership is inescapable because it is related to the genre’s content, particularly for the convention for a ‘happy ending’. As the one formal feature within the romance genre that most can identify, this universal device, the journey of a heterosexual relationship which typically culminates in marriage, prompts the greatest condemnations from its critics. Such a union, they protest, is problematic because it anticlimactically enslaves the heroine and thus, by extension, the reader.[7] The heroine is extinguished within the confines of her own story as any independently orientated narrative are negated by marriage, and the reader is also encouraged to act accordingly. Thus, as Pamela Regis highlights, because this charge claims that the form of the romance novel genre- its conclusion of marriage- extinguishes the heroine and binds the reader, every romance novel, by virtue of its being a romance novel, must exercise these same powers to extinguish and bind.[8] Under this assumption, Jane Eyre (1847), as a widely celebrated gothic romance masterpiece, must, by association, subject Jane and its readers to these same constraints. Notwithstanding, it is Jane who emphatically carves out her own destiny, and this perhaps signals the strongest feminist assertion of the novel. Jane chooses to pursue a new life away from Rochester: ‘It was mytime to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force.’[9] At the end of the novel, when St. John is about to embark upon his missionary work and repeatedly asks Jane to accompany him as his wife, it is once again Jane’s own “independent will”[10] that she emphatically exercises in her refusal to agree, on the grounds that doing so would mean compromising her capacity for passion in a loveless marriage. Instead, her thoughts drawn back to Rochester and decides to seek him out. After discovering that the estate has burned down and that Rochester, blinded during the fire, resides nearby, they reunite again. However, while this ending to the novel does conclude in a marriage, the empowering significance lies within Jane’s volition to do so. Brontë thus meticulously crafts her heroine’s free agency throughout the novel because and of in spite of these patriarchal conditions she is subjected to: “I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”[11]

 This question of female agency within the genre and its readers have been much contented. Indeed, as Modleski maintains, it is easy for one to assume that endorsing these narratives solidifies an “immense identification between reader and protagonist”[12] -that the action of reading a particular book infers an unquestioning endorsement of its ideology. Such a sweeping implication is problematic for it assumes that romance readers do not possess a framework that simultaneously accounts for the combining of an objective comprehension of their position in relation to men and a subjective nod to their own practice of reading. Again, this seems to nod toward questions of reader intelligence- that they do not possess the capacity to be self-aware. Further, it is important to remember that readers are at liberty to ignore or reject and otherwise read detachedly from the novel’s form. After all, as proven by the readers’ reports to Janice Radway, in her study of romance readers, the act of the purchase does not always signify an endorsement of content.[13] When considering reader consciousness, this would certainly herald activity on the part of reader, not just passive acceptance- that they are able to locate a sense of empowerment in reading romance novels by being agents of their own interpretations. As Brontë champions, “it is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; they will make it if they cannot find it.”[14]

 Indeed, the proliferation of modern technology has assisted in giving romance readers a plethora of information about romance fiction on the internet. A mode of contacting one other, there are approximately fifty specific websites dedicated to romantic fiction itself, and eleven chat groups which allow their readers to talk directly to one another.[15] For example, the website All About Romance- one of these websites, even features an interactive column entitled “At the Back Fence”, whereby readers are about to partake in discussions devoted to the issues surrounding their latest favourite, or least favourite, romance that they care to raise in a safe and non-judgmental space[16]. Further, as platforms such as these, continue to evolve with the evolvement of technology, more and more readers of the genre are uniting through a same shared adoration- the line between internal and external begins to blur, and with it, one’s sense of the internal self is slowly externalized. Thus, in participating in a community of readers who enjoy the genre and therefore lack the same critical judgment of the genre’s ‘frivolousness’, readers are able to access empowerment and agency through their own means, regardless of the topic and content of the text, simply by allowing them a space to partake- even to offer their disapproval into the dialogue.[17] Of course, this is not a strictly new phenomenon. Radway’s 1984 study noted that Dot, as a book shop owner, engaged in conversation surrounding romance book suggestions with her customers. While these communications occurred on a small scale, and, as Radway admitted herself, the group included a sample of women who matched each other in experience, the premise was the same. Now, however, the proliferation of the internet, and its capacity to connects romance readers together does so on a global scale, regardless of race, class, or even gender. This multitude of voices enable the conversation surrounding the romance to be uncompromising about the manner in which they discuss it- readers can thus examine culture in constructive ways; they are not necessarily constructed by it.[18]

 This notion of reader interpretation is also exhibited in other romance subgenres such as Chick-lit. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), certainly demonstrates a willing invitation for its readers to do so. “We were always taught, instead of waiting to be swept off our feet, to ‘expect little, forgive much’”[19], reports Bridget. Whilst a one-sided conversation, the diary form of the novel also allows for the communication of a particular woman’s internal self to an audience. In offering this to the reader, as Jane does in her asides in Jane Eyre, she is able to align herself within her readers by demonstrating an immersion into a shared female experience. Fielding skillfully adopts humour as mean of comprehending Bridget’s failings in love. Importantly, however, beneath this self-deprecation is a desire to communicate a (heterosexual) female pursuit to escape the patriarchal structures of Western society, that:“One must not live one’s life through men but must be complete on oneself as a woman of substance.”[20] Thus, the small victories Bridget accumulates as she stumbles through her romantic woes enable for tangible character growth to the reader. Such comedic (and seemingly peripheral) elements of the plot actually serve as a principal means of comprehending the patriarchy she is subjected to. By following this light-hearted account of a woman not so dissimilar to themselves, contemporary readers are able to constructively appraise their own lives therein. Thus, romance novels serve as a means of comprehending the universal problems faced by their female readers – whatever their position. Importantly, that is not to say that the genre removes said challenges. Quite the opposite; if the reader is to root for the heroine throughout her quest of conquering love, it is important to immerse oneself in the potential mishappenings she faces. Thus, it is necessary for these blatant patriarchal markers to exist in order to comprehend and subvert them. Hence, romance novels, dismissed for their frivolousness, are, in fact, capable of facilitating a shift in the discourse of women’s lives through candidly validating an association of shared heterosexual female experience whereby readers can glean their own empowerment, even if only temporarily.


Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre (London: Wordsworth Publishers, 1992)

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990)

Fielding, Helen, Bridget Jones’s Diary (London: Picador Publishers, 2014)

Goade, Sally. Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 2007)

Greer, Germaine, The Female Eunuch (London: MacGibbon & Kee Ltd, 1970).

Kamble, Jayashree, ‘Female Enfranchisement and the Popular Romance: Employing an Indian Perspective’ Empowerment versus Oppression, Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels, ed. Sally Goade (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007).

Krentz, Jayne Ann, “Introduction.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (New York: Harper Collins, 1996)

Modleski, Tania, “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances.” Signs, vol. 5, no. 3, 1980, pp. 435–448. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Radway, Janice, A Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Caroline Press, 1991).

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

Roach, Catherine Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture (Bloomington: Indiana Press, 2016)

Struve, Laura. ‘Sisters of Sorts: Reading Romantic Fiction and the Bonds among Female Readers.’ The Journal of Popular Culture 44. 6 (2011), pp.1289–1306

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Ed. Carol H. Poston,1792. (New York: W.W. Norton Publishers, 1988)

Effect of Latin on the Romance Languages

In order to understand how Latin broke up into the various Romance languages between late antiquity and the early middle ages, it is important to analyse historical and principal linguistic factors.  The fact that a language can change into several other languages is due to language change.  It is possible to examine how Vulgar Latin derived from its parent language, Classical Latin, and then in turn, how Vulgar Latin became the proto-language from which its daughter languages, the Romance Languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, and others derived.

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 In Latin Alive: The survival of Latin and English in the Romance Languages, Solodow explains that Latin and Roman history are inextricably bound.  The establishment of the empire which encompassed the greater part of the ‘known’ world at the time, led to the spread of Latin.  This language was important for trade and communication throughout the empire (2010, p.9).  As a result, when the final emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustus was deposed by the Germanic general, Odoacer and the collapse of the empire was complete, Vulgar Latin itself had already been subject to language change throughout the empire.  After the collapse, a very gradual process saw a move away from speaking Vulgar Latin to the evolution of its daughter languages collectively known as the Romance Languages.

 It is worth noting the main principle difference between Classical and Vulgar Latin.  Classical Latin is a highly artificial language, so much so, that it has remained unaltered for two millennia.  This raises the question of why it has remained this way for such a long time and the answer is simply this, Classical Latin was spoken by a very small minority.  However, a concentrated effort by Caesar (100-44 b.c.), Cicero (106-43 b.c.), and others shaped the language into a form they deemed pure and worthy.  This highly formed and formal language is still taught in schools today with unchanging vocabulary, syntax, and forms.  Vulgar Latin, on the other hand, was the spoken language of the people.  The name Vulgar is not a judgemental term, it has an etymological sense, ‘of the vulgus, the common people’ (Solodow, 2010, p.107-108).

 In time, spoken Latin became increasingly different from the written literary standard.  It belonged more to the masses, was less affected by schooling and was rooted in speech rather than writing (Solodow, 2010, p.113).  However, there are examples of written instances of Vulgar Latin.  When the first archaeologists started to excavate the town of Pompeii, they discovered that some of the walls were covered with writing.  There were all sorts of messages, but quite a lot of these were like the type of writings or graffiti on the walls of any modern town especially in public lavatories (Janson, 2004, p.67). 

It is also possible to get an idea of how common people spoke from the comedies of Plautus.  In this brief extract, we get a sense of this in the dialogue between two housewives, Cleostrata and Myrrinha, who meet in the street:

Cleostrata: Myrrinha, salve.

Myrrinha: Salve, mecastor: sed quid tu’s tristis, amábo?

Cleostrata: Ita solent omnes quae sunt male nuptae: Domi et foris

  aegre quod sit, satis sempre est.  Nam ego ibam ad te.

Myrrinha: Et pol ego istuc ad te.  Sed quid est, quod tuo nunc ánimo

  Aegre’st?  Nam quod tibi’st aegre, idem mihi’st dividiae.

Cleostrata: Hello, Myrrinha.

Myrrinha: Hello: but why are you so sad, my dear?

Cleostrata: Everybody feels like that when they have made a bad

marriage: indoors or out, there’s always something to make you miserable.

I was just on my way to see you.

Myrrinha: Well fancy that!  I was on my way to visit you.  But what is it

  That has upset you so? Because what ever upsets you upsets me too.

What Plautus demonstrated in this scene was ordinary spoken language, with short sentences, expressions which were typical of everyday speech and quite a lot of repetition of the same words (Janson, 2004, p.66). 

 The Appendix Probi is a fascinating document, and, by virtue of its format, it allows immediate access to the revelations about Vulgar Latin that it contains.  The Appendix consists of 227 entries, all of the type X, not Xⁱ, where X is the correct form of a word and Xⁱ a variant judged incorrect.  For example, the anonymous author, a champion of Classical Latin, teaches the reader that the word for ‘never’ is supposed to have an -m at the end, therefore the Spanish word for ‘never,’ nunca is incorrect (Solodow, 2010, p.115).  And yet, the word nunca is part of the evolving Romance language of Spain which derives from Vulgar Latin.  At this point it is time to investigate the similarities present in the languages derived from Vulgar Latin.

 In his introduction to the study of language relationships and the comparative method, Benjamin Forston IV states that, ‘All languages are similar in certain ways, but some are more striking and interesting than others. Consonants, vowels, words, phrases, sentences, and their ilk are fundamental structural units common to all forms of human speech; by contrast, identical or near identical words for the same concept are not, and when two or more languages share such words, it attracts notice (2010, p.1).’  Forston IV points out three types of language similarities.  The first source for such a resemblance is chance.  There are only so many sounds that the human vocal tract can produce… therefore a certain number of words that coincidentally resemble one another in any two languages have no historical relationship with one another.  For example, the Greek and Latin words for ‘god’ theós and deus.  A second source is borrowing.  People speaking different languages are often in contact with one another, and this contact typically leads to mutual borrowing of both cultural and linguistic material.  English for example, has borrowed the Inuit (Eskimo) word iglu ‘house’ for a type of shelter (igloo).  A third source of similarity is a sundry collection of language universals.  A common example of this is onomatopoeia such as English cuckoo and German kuckuck (Forston IV, 2010, p.1).

 Sometimes languages present similarities in their vocabulary that cannot be attributed to chance or borrowing or a sundry collection of language universals.  Below is a concrete example of the words for the numerals 1-10 in Spanish, Italian and French – three of the Romance Languages. 

   Spanish  Italian    French

1   uno   uno   un

2   dos   due   deux

3   tres   tre   trois

4   cuatro   quattro   quatre

5   cinco   cinque   cinq

6   seis   sei   six

7   siete   sette   sept

8   ocho   otto   huit

9   nueve   nove    neuf

10   diez    dieci    dix

From the chart it is possible to see that one or all of the languages borrowed its numerals from one of the other languages, or that they all borrowed them from the same outside source.  In order to investigate this idea even further it is possible to notice that numerals are not the only words evincing such strong mutual resemblance:

    Spanish  Italian   French

‘two’    dos   due   deux

‘ten’    diez   dieci   dix

‘tooth’    diente   dente   dent

‘of’    de   di   de

‘they sleep’   duermen  dormono  dorment

In the above chart all the words agree in beginning with d- in each language. 

    Spanish  Italian   French

‘am’    soy   sono   suis

‘you (sing.) are’  eres   sei   es

‘is’    es   è   est

‘we are’   somos   siamo   sommes

‘you (pl.) are’   sois   siete   êtes

‘they are’   son    sono   sont

In the above chart the whole present tense of the verb ‘to be’ is similar across the languages.  ‘If two or more languages share similarities that are so numerous and systematic that they cannot be ascribed to chance, borrowing, or linguistic universals, then the only hypothesis that provides a satisfactory explanation for those similarities is that they are descended from the same parent language.  This is the essential statement of what is known as the ‘comparative method’ (Forston IV, 2010, p.3).  In the case of Spanish, Italian and French this hypothesis would be correct: we know from other evidence that these languages all descended from a variety of Latin.  As a result, these languages are said to be genetically related (Forston IV, 2010, p.3).

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During the fifth century a.d. all the Latin speakers in the Roman empire saw profound change.  The arrival of Germanic tribes who seized power spoke their own dialect at first but in time they started speaking the same language as the people they ruled over.  In the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman empire there seemed to be little need for a common language.  By the eleventh century in Northern France, a number of writers started writing a language which was based on the spoken language of that time.  This was radically different from Latin, and after many changes it developed into modern written French (Janson, 2004, p.92).  The French versions of The Strasburg Oaths of 842 constitute the oldest substantial text in any Romance Language (Solodow, 2010, p.268).  In Italy and Spain similar changes happened, but not until a couple of hundred years later, in the thirteenth century.  Gradually all the Romance languages acquired their own written languages (Janson, 2004, p.92).

To conclude, Spanish, Italian and French amongst others are daughter languages of Vulgar Latin which in itself is a daughter language of Classical Latin.  During the rule of the Roman Empire, Vulgar Latin branched off into many variations of itself throughout the empire as a result of changing colloquial dialect.  The Romance languages evolved in the centuries after the collapse of the Roman empire when invading forces, with their own languages, in time borrowed from Latin and vice-versa to create new languages.  As a result, similarities in the Romance languages such as linguistic and written text provide concrete evidence that they have descended from the same parent language, Vulgar Latin, which in turn descended from the highly formal language of Classical Latin.





         FORTSON IV, B.

Indo-European Language and Culture An Introduction

In-text: (Fortson IV, 2010)

Your Bibliography: Fortson IV, B. (2010). Indo-European Language and Culture An Introduction. 2nd ed. Singapore: Wiley-Blackwell.

         JANSON, T.

A Natural History of Latin

In-text: (Janson, 2004)

Your Bibliography: Janson, T. (2004). A Natural History of Latin. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


         SOLODOW, J. B.

Latin Alive, The Survival of Latin in English and the Romance Languages

In-text: (Solodow, 2010)

Your Bibliography: Solodow, J. (2010). Latin Alive, The Survival of Latin in English and the Romance Languages. 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.