My visit to the land of romance

The Twitter account @PulpLibrarian–when not posting covers of the absolutely baffling history of Nazi BDSM fantasy magazines of the 70s or the less baffling 50s/60s/70s sci-fi magazines–periodically posts covers from romance novels. One thread had focused on the covers of a specific, named, artist; another on those covers that shared similar landscapes and poses (e.g. that of a frightened woman, fleeing a Victorian castle, across the forbidding moors). I was surprised when in the first artist-focused thread, many readers commented on how much they appreciated the artist and knew their name, referencing other books whose covers they were responsible for. Seldom in other genres are artists so recognizable. (Although, admittedly, I have done my own research on pulp sci-fi covers, and it’s likely this is a common venture. I can now spot in the wilds the hand of several of the more productive artists.)

Romance novels have always been one of those mysteries that exists as a trope that I know without actually knowing, and so I had no need to prove the axiom. It’s a basic fact that, if I had children, I’d likely be confronted to explain why?… and then couldn’t. What are romance novels really like?

Alexandria it ain’t

So back on 18 Feb I took to my favorite pulp haunt (Oxford Books being long gone), Book Nook on N. Druid Hills, and went debutante diving. I had, naïve ingénue that I am, expected a couple of racks with books going for 50-cents to maaaaaybe $2.50. I was wrong. There were hundreds-and-I-mean-hundreds of books filling both sides of a long aisle six or seven shelves high, and prices were generally only 1/2 off the original. This resulted in books costing no less than $4. Generally more.

I was a stranger in a tawdry, expensive land.

Everyone needs rules to live by, and my rules in Romance Book Purchasing were:

  1. The cover must be a painting. I was surprised how many had photographed covers and it’s odd how something can appear trashier in reality than the trashy in oil or watercolor is, but they do.
  2. The book must be well-worn from multiple ownerships. Obviously.
  3. The title must be on the more carnal side of titillating. No “The Marquis’s Castle” or “Confessions of a Viscountess”. I’m diving into the deep end of lust lake.
I wonder what these have to teach me

It was a challenge. One fact I learned is that these books normally come in extended series. My impulse is generally that of a completist and I would normally want the entire series, but (1) it was impossible to piece together a full series of anything, especially in combination with my Romance Novel Criteria, and (2) I conceded it might be better to cross-cut through different settings and themes. I compromised and my choices ended up being: Barbara Pierce’s Scandalous by Night, book #4 of the Carlisle Family series; her Sinful Between the Sheets, #2 of same; and The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, book #3 of The Burgundy Club series. That last one was right on target, title-wise. All three above may look less-than-worn, but any good pulp-reader knows that the proof is in the spine. These three have been read. And. How.

I told my brother what I was up to and he related how, when he and dad where clearing out our (maternal) grandmother’s house, they found boxes of romance novels. I wish I had them now if not just for the filthy lucre they’d provide me in my current unemployed state but for the chance to run my literary experiment with samples taken from my own lineage. I guess luridness skips a generation? [ed. she is who I feel most familial kinship to and so any revelations are with fond admiration.]

I started with The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton because, come on… that title alone! I wish I would have taken notes but general observations are: first person narrative, short chapters with minor cliff hangers, unnoticed-girl-gets-attention-from-notable-guy, murky past. Basically what the axiom of romance novels posited and that didn’t need my research. However one aspect I learned, and either I have been naïve or the stereotype of this genre’s public persona has diluted the facts, but jesus… This. Is. Porn.

I feel like I’ve seen something of Female World that I shouldn’t have or that they’d intended to keep secret. (“So we’re in agreement? We’ll let the men will think it’s trash but not that trashy? Ok team… break!“) Which brings me to another revelation: that’s the stupidest thing I could think since thinking was invented. The un-knowledge by me of what goes on in these books is my own. Sometimes a trope is just a trope and I am, I guess, really the ingénue (insert long, breathy French sigh here).

I’ve so far read two, with Scandalous by Night the most recent. I know what to expect. I know the genre’s style. But still… I’m a little intrigued by what I’ll find in the next.