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In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the narrator sardonically reminds us that "it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." By the same token, a contemporary maxim states that a woman in possession of a romance novel must be in want of a good education.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Once the genre step-child of literature, romance novels, particularly in the wake of an overflowing lit-major-marketplace, have become the junk bond genius of many an M.A. and Ph.D. The result? They're funnier, sexier, and rowdier than ever, not to mention read by millions of upwardly mobile, single women yearning for a time when their quick wit would land them a Prince Charming, or at least an Earl.

In short, today's romance novel is written by an intellectual--often with stylish, polyglot allusions to references as diverse as Shakespeare, James Bond, and Jerry Springer.

For evidence, look no further than the latest offering by Julia Quinn: The Viscount Who Loved Me. Written by a Harvard-Radcliffe grad, the novel sparkles with contemporary references and old-fashioned romance.

First off, there's the title - oozing with references to good old "007" - but rooted in the traditional title of Regency England.

Next, we have the delicious characters, starting with the fabulously gossipy Lady Whistledown, who like the narrator at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, intoning "two households, alike in dignity," frames and unfolds the events of the chapter. From her first words, however, when she admits, "This Author has come to the conclusion that there are rakes, and there are Rakes. Anthony Bridgerton is a Rake," Lady Whistledown serves not only a traditional role as narrator and audience accomplice in unfolding dramatic irony, but also functions as a purely modern cross between talk-show host and pop-up video. Her identity unknown to the rest of her society, Lady Whistledown is Geraldo, Jerry Springer, and The Enquirer rolled into one. As our heroine Kate remarks, "Of course she likes writing about rakes…If she wrote about boring people, no one would buy her newspaper." Lady Whistledown epitomizes all our human foibles, from rake-hunting to scandalmongering.

How thrilling!

But Lady Whistledown serves as only one example of the sophisticated mix Quinn achieves between witty modern references and oblique, intellectual allusions. Of course, we have the beautiful, feisty, and sexy Kate. Just like a Shakespearean heroine, Kate opens her mouth and lets her opponents, not to mention her boy-toy love interest, have it. Upon meeting our hero, Anthony, who spends half the book chasing Kate's more beautiful sister, Edwina, Kate offers the supreme put-down "in a tone that could have frozen champagne" that Anthony is "almost as handsome as [his] brother." After refusing to dance with Anthony several moments later, she remarks "deliberately thoughtful, 'I don't think regrets were in my future.'"

Kate's sassy tongue and headstrong ways not only mimic the Shakespearean heroines of old, most obviously Katharina of The Taming of the Shrew, but also reflect the resolute strength of the post-feminism, contemporary woman. This Kate "always stood wither her shoulders straight and tall, couldn't sit still if her life depended upon it, and walked as if she were in a race - and why not?"

Why not indeed?

At a Bridgerton family game of Pall Mall - played like croquet, but as competitive as playing Monopoly with a Forbes 500 family - the other family members "all looked at her in shock, as if they couldn't quite believe she'd had the nerve to enter the conversation." But Kate does more than merely enter the conversation, in a truly Monty Python meets Machievelli moment, "with quite the most evil grin her lips had ever formed, [Kate] drew back her mallet and smacked her ball with every ounce of every single emotion within her. It knocked into his with stunning force, sending it hurtling even farther down the hill…right into the lake."

With the character of Kate, Quinn illustrates a precept of contemporary romance novels: the heroines are sexy, independent, intelligent, and worth emulating. Indeed, Kate is proclaimed "worthy of the mallet of death" by Anthony's brother, Lord Colin. She banters with the rakish Lord Bridgerton, selects the "mallet of death" to play Pall Mall, and defends her younger sister from lecherous rakes. Even our hero thinks that "for all her annoyingly managing ways [she] did have an admirable wit."

Who wouldn't want to be her?

And what about our hero, Lord Bridgerton? Well, of course he's gorgeous, the eldest of eight children named alphabetically. He's brave; he's dashing; he's funny. But like all real world heroes, Viscount Bridgerton, has a flaw: he's afraid of bumblebees. And isn't it just such a minor psychosis that has broken up every modern relationship? It's not a grand passion or a grand problem; it's generally something as simple as a fear of bees. In Lord Anthony's case, his fear leads him to push up Kate's shirt, try to suck the venom out of a sting, and then get caught in this rather embarrassing position. Right then, "Kate knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that her life would never be the same."

Poof, they're married.

But unlike a fairy tale, Anthony and Kate's story continues after the marriage, when they have to deal with heartache, and a partner pretty sure he's going to die at thirty-eight because his father did. When Kate hopes "we'll be like this always," what happens? Predictably enough, "Anthony froze. Always…That was a word that had no meaning, something he simply couldn't comprehend. Suddenly he couldn't breathe…He had to get out of there."

Whether it's death or commitment or death through commitment, most modern men have faced the similar fears. And most modern women have nursed them through it. A realistic happily ever after has its appeal for the modern female reader, who might find the traditional knight a bit too cloying (not to mention like a bad divestiture commercial).

Doesn't their story sound much more sophisticated and adult than those Austen classics we've all read that end in the perfect marriage: the end?

Modern women are reading romances because they speak to modern realities in all their multi-faceted issues. After all, when Anthony realizes that "Kate had fought her demons and she had won," he reacts with jealousy. This reaction is not noble, glamorous, or lover-like, but it is human. That humanity is what makes The Viscount Who Loved Me, and many similar romance novels, appealing to the modern reader as an icon of popular culture. Consultants, teachers, lawyers, and philosophers--women all--love romance novels. Perhaps because as Shakespeare tells us, "If music be the food of love, play on."

So play on we will, as heroes and heroines reflect our hopes, dreams, and struggles in sophisticated stories of adventure, love, confusion, and satisfaction.

April 2001

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