How I Learned to Love Romance Novels Before Ever Reading Them
Romance author Cecelia Grant tells us how high-brow literature, music, and movies all played a part in her falling in love with romance and the Romance genre.
We didn’t have romance novels in the house, growing up. I’m pretty sure that neither my English-teacher dad nor my feminist mom has ever read one. I didn’t have any nearby aunts, grandmothers, or parents of friends who read them. And the one time we visited a great-aunt who had Shanna on her bookshelf, she also had vastly more sordid and alluring volumes like Mandingo, and The Lonely Lady.
All of which is to say I don’t have the usual romance-fan memories of sharing Georgette Heyer with a beloved female relative, or reading purloined books under the covers with a flashlight.
So how does a person so deprived wind up writing romance?
In my case, by reading things like this in my formative years:
Phebe: Good shepherd, tell this youth what ’tis to love.
Silvius: It is to be all made of sighs and tears;
And so am I for Phebe.
Phebe: And I for Ganymede.
Orlando: And I for Rosalind.
Rosalind: And I for no woman.
Sil: It is to be all made of faith and service;
And so am I for Phebe.
Phe: And I for Ganymede.
Orl: And I for Rosalind.
Ros: And I for no woman.
Sil: It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion, and all made of wishes;
All adoration, duty, and observance,
All humbleness, all patience, and impatience,
All purity, all trial, all obedience;
And so am I for Phebe…
This is some of Shakespeare’s finest writing on the subject of romantic love, if you ask me. Never mind that what the hapless shepherd Silvius describes here is really intense infatuation, as opposed to the mature, substantial sentiments on which two people ought to build a life together. Never mind the farcical web of crossed-wire attractions underlying this scene (Silvius moons after Phebe, who has fallen for the youth “Ganymede,” who neither she nor crushing-on-Rosalind Orlando realizes is actually Rosalind in disguise).
For the span of this moment, none of that matters. The sheer beauty of the words, of the rhythms, of the call-and-response structure, puts these four disparate love-addled souls in temporary harmony with one another, and elevates them out of their ridiculous circumstances into the sublime.
And not only does this passage illustrate the power of love to affect transcendence; by its very existence it argues that romance is a worthy subject. The swooniest, most impractical sort of love, far from being the trivial preoccupation of sexually frustrated women with unrealistic expectations and too many cats, is in fact a subject deserving of poetry. Of art. Of the talents of someone like Shakespeare.
Now, I didn’t spend my youth marinating in exclusively highbrow influences. I also listened to a lot of pop music. And the Great American Songbook, going back a century or more, is loaded with exquisite impressions of what it means to be in love. (May the English majors of the world forgive me, I think Meredith Willson’s “Till There was You” – “There were bells on the hills, but I never heard them ringing…” – is as eloquent on that subject as anything Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning ever wrote.)
Movies, too, offer plenty of preparatory fodder for the romance-reader/writer-to-be: it’s really only recently that we’ve all decided a love story only counts as cinematic art if one of the lovers dies at the end.
So maybe the better question isn’t “How does a person who grew up without romance novels wind up writing them,” but “How does anyone grow up in this culture and not learn to appreciate romance?”
I’d love to hear some of your own romance gateways and influences. What songs and poems best distill the experience of falling in love? What movies get it especially right? Let me know your thoughts, and you could win an advanced copy of my newest novel, A Gentleman Undone!
Cecilia Grant always knew she’d do something with that English degree. After waiting tables, composing software help files, and answering the carpool-lane-violators hotline, she’s delighted to be writing fiction. Grant makes her home in the Pacific Northwest with her fellow-writer husband, two bookish children, and unliterary cat and dog.