British romance writing has witnessed an astonishing profusion of popular novels since 1960, as well as successful commercial earnings. Modern trends towards greater realism, action and simplicity in plot have strengthened the genre, despite negative critiques from academics and disdainful prophecies of imminent demise. The Harlequin publishers imprint has had a phenomenal effect; the novels of British gothic-style romance writers are marketed in abundance in North America, most particularly on the popular reading shelves of supermarkets and shopping centre malls. Carole Mortimer (A Lost Love, Wildest Dreams) is a very popular romance novelist because of her glamorous London settings and her sophisticated heroines. This success reflects, in great part, the fact that the British romance genre responds to the need for sheer escapism of stressed, often jobless female suburbanite woman. Barbara Cartland (the Queen of Hearts) is a primary example of writers whose novels and television adaptations contrive to focus unapologetically on romantic melodramatic character types such as Regency ‘rakes’ and crafty ‘belles’. Their adventures are situated in an idealized age of a less industrialized England, on an isle of fantasy. These fantasized stories arguably respond to a deeply-rooted desire for nostalgia and hope in the modern age.
   However, Cartland’s supporters and other believers in escapism exaggerate the lack of psychological realism in the traditional Gothic romance novel, whether in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, both of which are equally nightmarish and sexually suggestive. It is no accident that, in our times, Gothic romance has returned to its own dreamy, more disturbing introspective realism to express the individual endeavours of people seeking to resolve personal difficulties in the society of post-1960s Britain. The story is sometimes resolved tragically or punitively for the character of the protagonist at the expense of women’s personas in the novel. The genre suffers as well from a too-confident belief in the total perfectibility of rationalized gender and childcare relationships, felt to be deeply personal matters by most more conservative Britons.
   Northerner Catherine Cookson (The Black Candle, The Black Gown Woman) shared Cartland’s insistence on a predominantly historical setting. Cookson had written and published nearly 100 novels by the time of her death in 1998, by which time she had reached millionaire status. But she was particularly successful, paradoxically, with contemporary twentieth-century romances. Cookson’s romances captured the era of her own youth and harsh upbringing in the early twentieth century, portrayed as a more meritocratic, less ruthless time than the present. Realism also has been the cultivated hallmark of the equally successful Barbara Taylor Bradford’s (A Woman of Substance) romance fiction, in her characters, in her visually powerful global portrayal of society, and in her panoramic landscape descriptions. Furthermore, the more feminist novelists of the last four decades who were once considered threats to the values of romantic fantasy fiction have in fact skillfully blended their intuitive concerns for the realistic existential victimized heroine with recognizably Gothic and Romantic themes. Irishborn Edna O’Brien’s lead characters (The Country Girls, The High Road) are modern but bittersweet British heroines. But these women characters, born in the 1950s, notably react against the still abiding rural repression and religious conformity dating from that period. Traditional expectations of them as ‘girls’ are still not uncommon on both sides of the channel and do impede character development in a changing social context. In addition, Beryl Bainbridge portrays in her works (such as Sweet William) the mistreatment of complex modern heroines; yet her philandering male characters are often gothically eliminated as they receive their ‘just’ punishment. Old-fashioned justice often takes the form of revenge imposed by women as the plot evolves.
   See also: popular fiction; readership
   Further reading
    Rowbotham, S. (1997) A Century of Women, London: Viking-Penguin (although far to the feminist left herself, Rowbotham demonstrates generous and fair understanding of avowed conservatives such as Dame Barbara Cartland).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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