There’s Romance . . . And Then There’s Romance

Interesting back-and-forth between @wildchildeditor and @Patti_OShea today: Why does Amazon classify books like Frankenstein and The Scarlet Letter as romances?

Actually, these are romances. The label Romantic originally referred to the intellectual reaction to the neoclassical values of the Enlightenment. Think of the Enlightenment – often referred to as the Age of Reason – as the period just before the American Revolution. The Romantic Period started roughly there and went strong to about 1832.

Some movers and shakers of the Enlightenment:

John Locke — the tabula rasa (blank slate) guy. He said we are born as a blank slate and become who we are through our experience in the world. He was all about nurture, not nature. So you can see why the Enlightenment crowd tended to deny that a person could be inherently evil.

This kind of thinking lead to disaster for the ruling classes: If people were not inherently evil . . . well, then, maybe they also were not inherently slaves — or kings, either, for that matter! Revolution!!! Freedom! Dignity for all! Competence, not birthright, justified power over others. Until the Enlightenment, monarchs ruled because God made them monarchs, and servants served because God made them servants; trying to change one’s place on the Great Chain of Being was an insult to one’s creator.

While this idea was percolating among the thinkers of the day, the actual do-ers were out circumnavigating the world, discovering The Longitude, steam power, electricity, and the existence of gases, “discovering” inoculation (was it God’s will a child should die of smallpox when there was a way to prevent it?) and generally demonstrating Man’s dominion over the world (though Woman was creeping into the fray, nano-bit by nano-bit.)

So, the Enlightenment – and this is an oversimplification – led to rules of social organization based on principles of science, control informed by reason, order, progress for the common good, and belief in Man’s perfectibility. (But don’t be misled; not all – not even a majority – of Enlightenment thinkers had any love for democracy. At best, they were ambivalent, more wary of the rabble than of the monarchy.) If the Enlightenment had any god, it was Apollo, lover of skills like music and medicine, and of order and self-control.

You can see artistic expressions of Enlightenment values in Mozart’s music, notably in The Magic Flute; in the written works of Voltaire, notably Candide.

Visually, see the formal gardens at Versailles.


Romanticism was a reaction against all this formal, rational, utilitarian order. The romantic championed individual over collective experience, the hidden over the obvious, the preternatural over the natural. Dionysos was his or her god.

The romantic rebelled against imposed order and sought not to be enlightened but to be inspired. Sublime! was the word of the day — denoting a natural world more powerful than human intervention. (Which is why Frankenstein is a romantic work: Dr. Frankenstein met with disaster when he tried to subvert the laws of nature.) Feeling took precedent over thought.

A Romantic hero was, as Lady Caroline Lamb said, mad, bad and dangerous to know.

As @wildchildeditor tweeted:

@likari @Patti_OShea It’s interesting to see how much the concept of what makes romance has changed and stayed the same.

Posted in Theory. 4 Comments »