Several days ago, a conversation emerged on my Twitter feed about romance novels—specifically, what had been the “first” romance novel people had read. It might surprise readers who know me well, but this question gave me pause. I can list any number of romance novels I’ve enjoyed over the years, but as a child and teen, I gravitated more toward mystery and fantasy—some of which had strands of romance woven through them but that I couldn’t squarely locate within that genre.
Then I remembered that lonely Saturday afternoon when I was 13, just after the Valentine’s Day dance at school, when I lost myself in the comfort of a fictional universe to drown my sorrows over the fact that not a single boy had asked me to dance. Quite by chance, the novel I plucked off my shelf featured a heroine in the same plight as myself: a girl who, for want of a partner, had been forced to sit down because the gentleman who’d been suggested to partner her was “in no humor to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” Yes, I’m talking about Pride and Prejudice. What a comfort that, as if bestowing a smile on me from the netherworld, Austen introduced Elizabeth Bennet to me when I needed her most.
Why I didn’t immediately pluck this title from my brain when asked what the first romance novel I’d ever read had been likely stems from a (admittedly pretentious) tendency to only categorize Pride and Prejudice as literary fiction by default, as if the “romance” genre cannot bestow enough literary distinction on Miss Austen. As someone who encourages and even participates in conversations about the blurred boundaries between literary and genre fiction, I’m almost ashamed to admit my mistake. Joshua Rothman, in an article published in the New Yorker, poses the question, “What is it, exactly, about genre that is unliterary—and what is it about “the literary” that resists genre?” Appropriately, perhaps, he cites Austen’s Northanger Abbey as one of the earliest examples of the collision between literary and genre fiction.
Pride and Prejudice, in as much as it’s been categorized as literary fiction, also fits fairly snuggly within the romance genre because the major conflict, after all, arises from a “matter of the heart.” The choices that the characters make, both wise and poor, have a ripple effect on more than one romantic relationship in the novel; Darcy’s interference in Bingley’s courtship with Jane, for instance, not only causes them both heartache, but loses him points in his pursuit of Elizabeth. Ultimately the novel follows that formulaic construction in which we know who will wind up marrying whom, but we read because we want to find out how they reach that conclusion.
To return to the conversation about romance novels with which I opened, thinking about Pride and Prejudice in relation to the romance genre also challenged me to reflect on the extent to which Pride and Prejudice has shaped my overall reading tastes. For one thing, I learned at a young age that I could, and should, expect strong-minded heroines in fiction. Even if Lizzie Bennet’s narrative follows the traditional trajectory for that period (ending in marriage) she’s still a relatively forward-thinking female for her time primarily because she holds strong opinions and has no qualms about voicing them. One of my favorite scenes in the novel is the moment when she stands up to Lady Catherine and refuses to promise never to enter into an engagement with Darcy. It matters not in that moment whether or not Darcy does propose to her a second time. It only matters that she make it clear that she, and she alone, will decide what will make her happy.
I credit Austen with guiding me toward romance fiction in which the couples are not only sexually/romantically attracted to one another, but worthy sparring partners on the intellectual playing field, which deepens their romantic attachment. I learned at a young age that both in my reading tastes and my own romantic choices, I could and should demand a man who values my brains as much as if not more than my beauty—a man who doesn’t feel intimidated by a self-sufficient, intelligent woman.
Having given Jane Austen tremendous credit for the extent to which my feminist principles inform my relationship choices, I’ve strongly considered implementing a sort of relationship version of the Litmus test, effective immediately, in which I ask each of my dates to name his favorite woman writer. I imagine the conversation proceeding something like this:
Me: so, who’s your favorite woman writer?
Date: I’m…not sure. Name a few.
Me: Contemporary or classic? British or American? Fiction or nonfiction?
Date (looking a bit like a deer caught in the headlights): I…have to go to the bathroom. *he abruptly leaves the table and climbs out the window*
This seemed like a perfectly sane screening practice for a college English teacher; then I remembered that I haven’t had a date in two years, so I might be better off casting a slightly broader net, at least for the time being.
What was the first romance novel you remember reading?