Roots of romance

Professor Jessie Matthews teaches a romance novel literature course for undergraduates. While some of her students are romance fans, others have never read a romance novel. Matthews compares the structure of romance novels to those of ancient archetypal myths, legends, and folktales to help students grapple with the books.


Are fairy tales related to romance novels?

In teaching the romance novel to students, it’s actually very handy to be able to point to myths and legends, fairytales, folklore. In large measure students are likely to be familiar with those in ways that they are not familiar with the romance novel per se. If we talk about…if I go back to the myth of Persephone—that this woman is abducted by a man who sees her for just a few moments and decides that he has to have her. And then we take a look like a book like The Sheik, where he sees Diana Mayo in the market somewhere for five minutes and says, “Oh, I have to have her.” And then he sets out a plan to go and get her and bring her back to his world. That’s easy for them to see.

And I do think the stories that we’re telling in romance novels, those roots run really deep. Courtship, the way in which couples get together, that’s going back eons. So it’s not like it’s a new thing, people have been telling stories about it for ages. From my own sense of the way in which romance novels kind of grow out of prior storytelling traditions, I feel like the fairy tale, the folklore aspect of storytelling, that there’s really stronger connections there. I see a lot of alignment between those two.

Who tells fairy tales?

Women have often been the tellers of fairy tales. They often tell them to children or they tell them to other women. We tend to think of the people who aggregate fairy tales as being men, like the Grimm Brothers or Charles Perrault, but there’s actually a huge body of women who collected these tales, volumes of tales. We probably don’t know their names. I know of one thing called The Fairy Library, it’s 41 volumes long. It was compiled in France by about 20 women in the 18th century. I think, “Why did I never hear about that?” There’s more fairy tales there than there are in the Charles Perrault collection.

The other thing I think I find interesting about the whole myth, fairy tale, folklore, legend storytelling is the notion of change. So many of those involve some kind of metamorphosis; the changing from a common girl to princess, changing the man from beast to prince, from frog to prince. That kind of change is, for me, central to the romance novel. Because you have a beginning, where there’s some sort of disruption and there has to be a change in both the hero and the heroine to produce this happily ever after ending. So I see lots of connections there between just the whole notion of change that’s in those stories.

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