A romance is typically a story of man and a woman who fall in love, enter a sexual relationship, and get married, not necessarily in that order. Vivanco and Kramer start their survey with Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Jane Austen's Pride and prejudice, and they take us, via Harlequin romances, up to modern examples of the genre. It might seem that just two people are involved in a romance but Vivanco and Kramer point out that to understand the genre properly we need to see each participant as having three bodies: physical, social, and political. The physical body is always important. Vivanco and Kramer give modern examples of the male protagonist described as having a "broad back that went on forever" and of the female protagonist as having "unblemished skin [that] glowed with health" to stand for the sexual organs, which they call, respectively, the Mighty Wang and the Glittery HooHa. Romance writers expend a good deal of energy and euphemism to imply these not-so-private parts and to suggest how they will perform. Then there are the participants' social bodies. The male protagonist must generally be rich and of high social status. The female protagonist must be of independent mind and be well turned out. Vivanco and Kramer call these social bodies the Phallus and the Prism. The participants also have political bodies, generally manifested in marriage and the woman's legal accession to wealth. A story's subtlety can depend on the ingenuity with which the different bodies affect each other, both within and between the persons involved.
The part of Vivanco and Kramer's account that I found most provocative (if I may use that term) is the idea of incompleteness. Although the man in a romance may have a fully functioning Mighty Wang, his Phallus can be incomplete. Thus in Pride and prejudice Mr Darcy's Mighty Wang is right there—the decorous Jane Austen writes of his "utmost force of passion" (p. 228)—but although he is rich and high-born, his pride prevents him from being a fully formed man. The story is about how Elizabeth transforms his social self. Vivanco and Kramer put it like this: "Elizabeth Bennet’s blunt honesty about Darcy’s arrogance inspires him to become more self‐aware and kind." They also point out that this motif is exactly that of alchemy. Instead of the alchemist who, by means of the philosopher's stone, transforms base metal into gold, the romantic heroine, by means of her Glittery HooHa, transforms the incomplete Phallus into gold.
The theme of alchemical transformation has strong appeal, and not just because of its narrative thrust. If we take its frequency of appearance in romances as evidence, we may conclude that this theme is primary, and resonates with an erotic desire that seems to be of a rather psychoanalytic kind. The womanly phantasy seems, thus, not only to be about achieving physiological effects on the man's body, not just about achieving union because of what the man has got, but about achieving transformation of someone who, as well as being incomplete, is an insensitive bully. And, although Vivanco and Kramer don't discuss the question, is there not another phantasy equally at work? Could it be that the man desires to transform a damsel in distress by rescuing her and bringing her to a fulfillment that will be expressed in bounteous gratitude?
Psychotherapists tell us that transformation of the person is very difficult. Romances tell us it's just the thing.
Jane Austen (1813). Pride and prejudice. London: Penguin (current edition 1985).
Janice Radway (1984). Reading the romance: Women, patriarchy, and popular literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Samuel Richardson (1740). Pamela. Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 2001).
Laura Vivanco & Kyra Kramer (2010). There are six bodies in this relationship: An anthropological approach to the romance genre. Journal of Popular Romance Studies, 1 (Online 4 August, http://jprstudies.org/)
Image: Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in the BBC Television version of Pride and prejudice.