This capacious and much‐contested category could be said to pre‐date the novel—as in the medieval verses of courtly love written in the vernacular, the ‘popular’ languages derived from Latin—or to coincide with its origins in the 17th cent., when the first novels are romances of illicit love. If the English novel's literary canon begins in the 18th cent. with Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, these, too, are classic romantic fictions: the first, a story in which our heroine tames the rapacious rake through her intelligence and virtue; the latter, one in which she fails to do so and must, tragically, pay with her life.
As literary generations succeed one another, there is a tendency for the realism of one epoch to look like romance to the readers and writers of the next. Currencies or novelties grow remote, past social forms seem exotic or idealized, language overblown. Remoteness, exoticism, idealization, excess in language or emotion are all characteristics which render fiction romantic. In her literary history of 1785, The Progress of Romance, Clara Reeve already makes a distinction between the ‘novel’ which deals with everyday life and the ‘romance’, a more elevated form concerned with high emotion, high life, and past times.
Nonetheless, the term ‘romantic fiction’ remains slippery and its use through time replete with ironies. The venerable Sir W. Scott, who self‐consciously wrote romances, criticized Jane Austen for not being romantic enough. This would surely surprise all viewers and readers of Jane Austen, who consider her period pieces the very stuff of romance for all her witty balancing act between love and property. Indeed, it is from Austen's work that the contemporary popular romance of the Harlequin Mills & Boon, happy‐ever‐after variety derives its key storylines.
As the size of the reading public grew from the 18th cent. onwards and spread down the ladder of class, so too did the size of the public for romance, particularly the female public. Because of the gender and mass of its readers, critics are quick to lash out at the form and accuse it of corruption. ‘He who burns a romance purifies the human mind,’ wrote Richard Carlisle, the radical 19th‐cent. publisher. ‘Those damned romantic novels of romantically damned love!’ echoes a Guardian review of 1967, guarding our public morals against the possibility of female transgression. It is as if women readers—wives and daughters and servants—will be led forever astray once their imaginations have been fired by the likes of Ouida's capricious heroine Cigarette in Under Two Flags, or, indeed, the passionate Anna Karenina, or the audacious Scarlett O'Hara.
Certain women writers have often been equally scathing about romantic fiction, itself much of it written by women. The didactic anti‐Jacobin writers of the late 18th cent.—for example Mary Ann Hanway and Jane West—in their attempt to consolidate ideals of bourgeois domesticity, inveighed against the passions and romance, only now and again to find themselves writing what everyone else called passionate romances. In Northanger Abbey Jane Austen parodied the excesses of the Gothic romance. George Eliot—whose Daniel Deronda borders on romance—wrote a scathing attack on ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’, pointing out their absurdities, ‘the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them—the frothy, the prosy, the pious or the pedantic’. Like the great mass of fiction, romance is not always well written, but unlike the great mass of what could be called male romance—stories of pistols and pirates and wild beasts, of criminal life, of spies in exotic locations and hard‐boiled detectives—it has had more than its share of opprobrium. In part this is undoubtedly due to cultural fears about and for women, both as readers and as writers.