The word romance has a long history. It originally identified a specific language, Old French, and then came to mean any work written in French. Because medieval French literature consisted mainly of stories about knights and their exploits, the meaning of romance narrowed further to mean tales, written in either prose or poetry, about knights. Over time, the word came to be used both as a synonym for the novel as well as a category to be distinguished from the novel. Used in the latter sense, it denoted fiction that disregarded the limits of everyday life in action and characterization, emphasized the mystery of life, was remote in time or place, used extravagant settings, and relied on coincidence. Sir Walter Scott distinguished between the novel and the romance but allowed for some overlap in the two categories:

We would be rather inclined to describe a Romance as ‘a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents;' thus being opposed to the kindred term Novel, which Johnson has described as ‘a smooth tale, generally of love;' but which we would rather define as ‘a fictitious narrative, differing from the Romance because the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events, and the modern state of society.' Assuming these definitions, it is evident, from the nature of the distinction adopted, that there may exist compositions which it is difficult to assign precisely or exclusively to the one class or the other; and which, in fact, partake of the nature of both. But, generally speaking, the distinction will be found broad enough to answer all general and useful purposes (1824).

Generally, the romance was regarded with disfavor in the eighteenth century, primarily because it appealed to imagination over judgment or reason and because its extravagances and exaggerations were unnatural. As the century proceeded, however, tastes began to diverge and the romance found defenders. Bishop Hurd asked: "May there not be something in the Gothic Romance peculiarly suited to the views of a genius, and to the ends of poetry? And may not the philosophic moderns have gone too far in their perpetual ridicule and contempt of it?" (1762) . Horace Walpole justified The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel in English, in part as a new kind of romance, a blending of the ancient and the modern romance. The ancient romance, he explained, was all "imagination and improbability"; heroines and heroes alike acted and spoke unrealistically and had unrealistic emotions. The modern romance, in contrast, successfully copied nature but was prosaic, unimaginative. Walpole asserted that he was giving his fancy free rein to invent interesting situations at the same time that his characters, who acted as moral agents, behaved and spoke the way "mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions."

Clara Reeves approved of Walpole's attempt to combine "the ancient Romance and modern Novel" although she objected to his practice; he had included too much of the marvelous. She believed that the goal of the romance was "first, to excite the attention; and secondly, to direct it to some useful, or at least innocent end" (The Old English Baron, 1778). In her romance she included only "a sufficient degree of the marvellous to excite attention; enough of the manners of real life to give an air of probability to the work; and enough of the pathetic to engage the heart on its behalf." Following Walpole's lead, the early Gothic writers tended to call their novels romances, e.g., Ann Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest and A Sicilian Romance. The Gothic romance was the most popular form of fiction from the 1790s through the early 19th century.

Gothic novels continue to be called Gothic romances today.

Date: November 29, 2004