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
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
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
she wrote about boring people, no one would buy her newspaper."
Lady Whistledown epitomizes all our human foibles, from rake-hunting
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
That was a word that had no meaning, something
he simply couldn't comprehend. Suddenly he couldn't breathe
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.