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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 both to refer to the novel and to be distinguished from the novel. Used in the latter sense, it usually 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. It tends to present extreme experiences, contradictions, complex feelings, disorder, and disunity, often ending in ambiguity.

The distinction between the novel and the romance is in fact somewhat slippier. For one thing, there is not general agreement about the characteristics of the novel itself. In addition, the same work may be called a novel by one critic and a romance by another; this is particularly true of Gothic fiction, with its use of magic, mystery, and horrors. Further complicating the debate of novel versus romance is the practice of combining the romance and the novel in one work, so that it contains elements of both. Sir Walter Scott, whose novels influenced generations of novelists and formed the taste of generations of readers, sharply distinguished between the novel and the romance but at the same time allowed for the categories overlapping:

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 or novel, 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 succinctly distinguished the two genres: "The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it was written. The Romance in lofty and elevated language, describes what has never happened nor is likely to." In her view, the goal of the romance was "first, to excite the attention; and secondly, to direct it to some useful, or at least innocent end" (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 fiction 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.

The debate about whether the novel and the romance are different genres and if so, what that difference might be, continued through the nineteenth century into the twentieth century not just in England but in the United States also. Hawthorne regarded The Scarlet Letter as a romance; as a romance writer, he had crossed the boundary of ordinarily opposed states, reality and imagination:

Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly–making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility–is a medium the most suitable for a romance writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of hte well-known apartment; the chairs, with each in separate individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a work-basked, a volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the bookcase; the picture on the wall–all these details, so completely seen, are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity thereby. A child's whose; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage; the hobby-horse–whatever, in a word, has been used or played with during the day is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by daylight (1850).

Henry James concisely abstracted the type of experience presented by the romance–"experience liberated, so to speak; experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered, exempt form the conditions that we usually know to attach to it" (1877). Using this criterion, he classified The American as a romance.

For Robert Lewis Stevenson, the distinction between the two genres was a matter of a work's imaginative appeal and reader response to the work:

We are always aware that we are reading a story or are in a theater watching a play. The romance, in contrast, actively involves us imaginatively.... Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life; and when the game so chimes with his fancy that he can join in it with all his heart, when it pleases him with every turn, when he loves to recall it and dwells upon its recollection with entire delight, fiction is called romance (1882).

The relationship of the romance and the novel took a different form for Conrad, based on the connection between life in general, his life, and his fiction. He was conscious of the problematic nature of his vision and material, and he struggled to express his sense of the romantic nature of reality, "of romanticism in relation to life, not of romanticism in relation to imaginative literature.' His own life, which he acknowledged did not follow conventional patterns,

was very far from giving a larger scope of my imagination. On the contrary, the mere fact of dealing with matters outside the general run of everyday experience laid me under the obligation of a more scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own sensations. The problem was to make unfamiliar things credible. To do that I had to create for them, to reproduce for them, to envelop them in their proper atmosphere of actuality. This was the hardest task of all and the most important, in view of that conscientious rendering of truth in thought and fact, which has always been my aim.

In contrast to Hawthorne, who strove to transform through imagination the ordinary, the familiar, the everyday into the strange, the ideal, the magical, Conrad strove to make the strange, the outrageous, and the enigmatic into the familiar and the everyday so that it would be believable to readers.

The debate about the two genres is ultimately a debate about the nature of reality as well as about the presentation of that reality and conformity to society's rules and values.

Brontë: Table of Contents

Day 1

Overview of Emily Brontë
Publication of Wuthering Heights & Contemporary Critics
Later Critical response to Wuthering Heights
Film Versions of Wuthering Heights

Day 2 Themes in Wuthering Heights
The Narrator
Day 3 Wuthering Heights as Socio-Economic Novel
Psychological Interpretations of Wuthering Heights
Religion, Metaphysics, Mysticism and Wuthering Heights
The Gothic and Wuthering Heights
Romanticism and Wuthering Heights
Day 4

"I am Heathcliff"
Emily Bronte's Poetry


March 28, 2004