I Love It, but I’m Not Sure I’d Call it Romance

rebecca I was discussing books with one of my friends. She doesn’t read much romance, but she likes urban fantasy and the occasional swashbuckling historical when she can find it. At one point, though, she told me that, “My favorite romance is probably Rebecca…” And that stuck with me. I also really like this book, but romance? Not really. Great classic that I think more people should read, most certainly. But still not a romance.

I love gothics, and the air of menace and mystery in this one is hard to beat. The opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” is seared into my head. I know the story well, and I still enjoy rereading it from time to time. The book has an intoxicating dreamlike atmosphere to it that I find difficult to resist. Still, while the main characters are a couple, it is hard to see their marriage as a romance.

Those who know the book will recall that Maxim de Winter and his younger second wife, who had formerly worked as a paid companion. Maxim and the new wife return to his home, Manderley. The new wife knows Maxim was a widower and that his beautiful first wife, Rebecca, died in a tragic accident. Maxim’s tragedies sound like they are in the past, but that will prove not to be so when the de Winters reach Manderley and take up residence with the formidable Mrs. Danvers and the memories of Rebecca.

What unfolds is a brilliant mystery and a deeply atmospheric story, but it’s hard to see the love between Maxim and the new wife. After all, Wife #2 doesn’t even get a name. How much more insignificance can one heap upon a person than simply not acknowledging that she even has a name? Not much detail is given about Wife #2, but what little is there makes her seem timid and mousy, ill at ease whereever she goes. One would feel sorry for her rather than be struck with admiration. In addition, one never reads of her hopes, her dreams, what she believes about the world – she instead lives essentially to be Maxim’s wife. And what a rigid world Maxim creates. There are times in the book when I wonder if Maxim is married to Wife #2 or if he somehow thinks he hired a servant instead.

One of the early chapters of the book sets the scene for Wife #2′s life after the dramatic events detailed later in the novel. She and Maxim lead a very retiring life in exile, which she claims as a good thing. They have a routine they follow, and carefully skirt any conversation topics that might remind them of bad memories. It’s a chapter that is skillfully written, and one can almost feel oneself smothering while reading it. But, romantic? No way. Maxim certainly sounds haunted, but Wife #2 seems stifled and rather pitiful. These two may stick together, but romantic feeling does not seem to be the glue that holds them together.

No – timid women living under the thumb of their powerful husbands and haunted by the memories of said husband’s dead first wife do not give one that good feeling that a real HEA would. And I can’t say I find the stultifying exile of the de Winters particularly romantic or satisfying. It makes for a great dark gothic thriller, but I can’t say I find it that romantic. And then there’s Maxim’s first marriage – but I’ll leave you to discover THAT for yourselves, if you haven’t already.

What about you? What “romance” books out there strike you as having been deeply misclassified?

-Lynn Spencer

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20 Responses to “I Love It, but I’m Not Sure I’d Call it Romance”

  1. RfP says:

    timid women living under the thumb of their powerful husbands and haunted by the memories of said husband’s dead first wife do not give one that good feeling that a real HEA would

    Isn’t that the premise of quite a few genre romances, at least at the outset? I think it’s actually your earlier description that shows the difference between Rebecca and a modern genre romance:

    Not much detail is given about Wife #2… one never reads of her hopes, her dreams, what she believes about the world

    A Betty Neels heroine (or a Regency wife) might be mousy and married to an intimidating man, but she’s far more “present” in the story than is the second wife in Rebecca. In modern genre romance, we get to know the heroine–and she is a heroine; the narrative rewards her for going after what she wants, and we know that there will be a happy ending because of that structure. Not because the relationship is healthy or easy; often it isn’t, especially at the start of the story but sometimes throughout.

  2. The one that bugs me is Wuthering Heights. People are always referring to it as a romance, and I agree that it IS romantic in the sense of high emotions, life-and-death love, wild moors, etc, but I wouldn’t classify it as a romance in the modern sense of the word. Heathcliff and Catherine’s end isn’t what anyone could call “happily ever after”. I always find myself deeply unsettled after reading it.

  3. Lynn Spencer says:

    @RfP – I agree with you that heroines may end up with intimidating men, and they may even start out mousy, but most of the heroines I encounter have some self-respect. Even if the heroine starts out in an unhealthy situation like the one here, we know she’s not going to stay in that rut. Also, while the hero may still imtimidate others, he(in a good romance) doesn’t still scare the heck out of the heroine at the end!

  4. Cindy says:

    Some people think if anyone in the book falls in love – you’ve got yourself a romance! Gone with the Wind? Romeo and Juliet? Anna Karenina? Not “romances” in my book. No HEA = No romance.
    Rebecca isn’t a romance to me either – not because of personalities of the married pair (because those can vary widely in books that are undoubtedly romances), but because of the focus of the book. The relationship of Maxim and Wife #2 isn’t the most important relationship in the book. Mousey heroines and unsympathetic heros don’t make a non-romance, they just probably make a bad romance.
    The lovely little romance of Jo and the Professor in Little Women is one of my favorites, but Little Women isn’t a romance either, because the couple’s relationship isn’t the focus of the book.
    It doesn’t bother me when people call any of the above romances – they just don’t fit my definition (or the definition of most devoted romance-readers, based on what I read on-line). To me, a true romance focuses on the establishment or strengthening of a loving relationship between a man and a woman, and has a HEA ending.

  5. Susan/DC says:

    “Rebecca” is a wonderfully atmospheric Gothic, but it’s not a romance. It’s very telling that the book’s title is the first wife’s name and that the second wife goes unnamed.

  6. xina says:

    I think Rebecca is a true gothic novel, but romance? No. Romance novel writing follows a pattern and Rebecca doesn’t have that pattern at all. It does have a fairly happy ending, but that alone doesn’t make it a romance novel. It isn’t really very romantic. At times I fear for the heroine and her husband really isn’t much help for most of the book. Okay…we find out his true feelings in the end, but not much romance happens within the book at all. It really bugs me when people name a classic as their favorite romance novel, almost as if they think they will appear intelligent (ashamed to name a real romance writer) if they list Pride and Prejudice as their “favorite romance of all time.” Sorry…that is not romance either. It’s a romantic book, to be sure, but not a romance novel. Same goes for Rebecca.

  7. Mary Skelton says:

    Louisa Edwards: The one that bugs me is Wuthering Heights. People are always referring to it as a romance, and I agree that it IS romantic in the sense of high emotions, life-and-death love, wild moors, etc, but I wouldn’t classify it as a romance in the modern sense of the word. Heathcliff and Catherine’s end isn’t what anyone could call “happily ever after”. I always find myself deeply unsettled after reading it.
    ***********

    I agree Wuthering Heights is not a HEA, but I still think it romantic in a gothic sort of way. Cathy & Heathcliff were bound to each other in an ethereal, otherworldly way that was somehow not meant to be during their lifetime. Their HEA if they had one came after death. I do not know to this day why I feel empathy for Heathcliff given his cruelty, but I think the bleak childhood he survived made his adult persona a little easier to understand. He was capable of love. He did love Cathy even though it was his love that destroyed her and Cathy herself played a big part in his downfall. I think there is a message there that love can destroy, but also that love can save. There was redemption in the children when Catherine Linton and Hareton Earnshaw get together.

  8. Mary Skelton says:

    One of my favorite romances is Pride and Prejudice. When people put down romances, I just bring up Jane Austen as an example. Two people begin at odds with each other. The big misunderstanding. Regret at learning the truth of how the heroine misjudged the hero. An evil villain in George Wickham. Finally coming together for a HEA. So many classics fit this mold, but people smear the modern romance.

    I would say that there are many classics that are mis-categorized as NOT being a romance. Austen’s works would be one example, Elizabeth Gaskell’s another. Then there is also George Elliot. How many classics can we think of that people go to great pains to categorize as something else besides a romance?

  9. Cindy says:

    I would absolutely categorize Pride and Prejudice as a romance. Almost every scene shows us what makes Elizabeth who she is or what makes Darcy who he is and it all works to bring them together in the end. I can’t think why anyone wouldn’t call P&P a romance.

  10. Mary Skelton says:

    Cindy: I would absolutely categorize Pride and Prejudice as a romance.Almost every scene shows us what makes Elizabeth who she is or what makes Darcy who he is and it all works to bring them together in the end.I can’t think why anyone wouldn’t call P&P a romance.

    Because that would serve to make romance a legitimate genre and the classics snobs cannot have that! I have heard/read quite a few people that will deny to their dying day that P&P is not a romance compared to the modern genre. Most likely they are the same people who have never read a modern romance.

  11. Marcella says:

    Daphne Du Maurier is one of my favorite authors and I own most of her books, but not one romance among them IMO, incl. Frenchman’s Creek and Jamaica Inn, which have even more romantic elements than Rebecca.

    I agree with Mary Skelton, admitting that P&P and other classics (Jane Eyre e.g.) are romances would make it a legitimate genre, so that won’t happen any time soon in our patriarchal world. But who knows, maybe in 2250 books by Nora Roberts, SE Phillips, Loretta Chase and Lisa Kleypas will be called classics…

  12. xina says:

    I disagree. I love the genre and I think listing a current romance novel writer as a favorite is giving the genre respect. It appears to me, and I know it is not the case for some, that saying Jane Austen is a favorite romance author, is a copout. Actually, I don’t believe P&P is a romance novel, but a novel with a romance in it. What is wrong with saying, yes, my favorite author is Julia Quinn or Eloisa James. By saying Austen is a romance novel seems to reassure the non romance reader that the reader of romance novels is intelligent enough to read Austen. I think mentioning the many fabulous writers who DO write romance novels it a nod to the genre that it is worthwhile. I do not think Austen’s work is romance novel writing but I feel the same about Hawthorne and DH Lawrence. Shouldn’t Lady Chatterly’s Lover be considered a romance novel too is P&P is considered one?

  13. Mary Skelton says:

    I love the genre as well and think that attracting more people to it is a worthy goal. By letting people know that many classics fall into the formula of a romance novel with a HEA, etc., I think it diminishes some of the stereotypes surrounding romance novels. I also disagree with you about P&P. When I first read it over 35 years ago, I loved it for the romance and the story combined, but it was the romance between Eliza and Darcy that kept me reading it over and over again. Any decent romance novel also has a good story with good writing. The romance genre will never gain the respect it deserves if people do not begin to understand that Julia Quinn, Linda Howard, Loretta Chase, et.al are very good writers and that given enough critical exposure might take their place among the Austens Brontes and Elliots of the literary world.

    I would also like to know why it is unimportant to let people know that intelligent people read romance? Is that not another stereotype to be done away with? That only bored housewives or silly teens read romance novels? I am a very well read person and I do not limit my reading to romance. Many adult friends of mine would have never read the Harry Potter books had I not told them they were wonderful or Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials.” The perception was they were only for children. If I come across a wonderful book, my first inclination is to share it with others regardless of the genre. To me, it does not really matter what genre a book falls into as long as it entertains me with a good storyline and great writing. The old adage, “you can lead a horse to water…” comes to mind. People can go to the bookstore or the library, but until you let them know that the water is fine, they won’t drink it.

  14. xina says:

    Well, that was sort of my point. I do think that it’s important that the naysayers know that intelligent people read romance, but I don’t think we have to mention Austen to make that point. As for the wonderfully talented romance novel writers today taking their place by Austen. Why should they? They have a place of their own, and that’s a good place. I think we as romance novel readers who love the genre know that there are some very talented people writing today and they deserve respect for that. It is too bad the entire genre is put down and swept aside at times. I suppose Austen had her doubters as well. I have a favorite classic author…Warwick Deeping who wrote a very romantic book called Doomsday (1917…so, maybe he wouldn’t be considered a classic author). His critics called it “silly romance” and he lost a lot of fans with that book, but he continued to write romantic books. Doomsday is such a wonderful book that reads just like romance, complete with love scenes and a HEA. Many of his readers lost respect for him after that. I found the book in my Grandmother’s things, so maybe he had a lot of female readers…..for good reason. :)

  15. Mary Skelton says:

    I guess I am just seeing this from a different perspective than you are. I don’t mention Austen to show people how intelligent I am. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I read constantly and just about every genre. Why I mention Austen is because anyone would include Jane Austen as a legitimate author no matter what genre they typically read. She is an author that is well known even among the non-reading population. For those who would dismiss romance novelists as being beneath their reading dignity, but would tell you in the next breath that Jane Austen was a worthy novelist is in my opinion ironic. For P&P IS a romance novel – again in my opinion. You would state that it was a novel with a romance in it. If we were discussing Emma, I would agree with you. Throughout most of the book, the main theme is Emma’s matchmaking mischief with Harriet and a slight infatuation with Frank Churchill all interspersed with the foibles of the various residents of Highbury. The real romance does not take place until near the end of the book and the first time I read it, was kind of a surprise. Throughout most of the book Emma and Mr. Knightley were portrayed as old friends. The romantic part was kind of a kicker.

    With P&P, the main theme of the book is Elizabeth’s relationship with Mr. Darcy and how over the course of time that relationship changes. Since that relationship is at the forefront of the novel, I would term it a romance that also contains the side romance of Jane and Mr. Bingley.

    Michael Jackson is currently being compared to Elvis or the Beatles. He was certainly of a different musical genre, but the comparison is mainly to show his impact on the music industry. Since there was no rock music back in the times of Mozart or Beethoven, the corollary is not quite the same. However the Beatles and Elvis would be defined as classic rock. To be elevated to the status of the Beatles in death is just to show how great his music really was. Comparing contemporary writers to writers who died a long time ago is not meant to say they are not good in their own right, but merely that one day these living authors may be placed alongside those who have made a historical impact on the literary world. For that to happen, people with some literary credibility (and I am not saying romance readers are not credible – I am talking about people who make their living doing literary criticism) actually have to read their books. Unfortunately most literary critics tend to be men. Now I know that George IV was a fan of Jane Austen, but for years she was considered an author for women. Getting some men to read her books is almost like pulling teeth. Perhaps as more and more women enter the literary criticism field, more exposure will be given to a genre that has been overlooked by many.

  16. xina says:

    There is no question that Jackson has had as much of an impact as Elvis and The Beatles. All three were/are phenomenal contributors to music, plus Jackson was a gifted dancer. Jackson was indeed the King of Pop. I can’t compare classical music, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, to music that has happened in the last 60 years…just as I can’t compare Austen to modern authors of today. They both deserve a place of their own, and that is where you and I disagree. Hopefully, in a friendly way. :)

  17. Mary Skelton says:

    Definitely in a friendly way :0). I guess I am thinking where Michael Jackson will be in say 150 years in comparison to whatever type of music they are composing then. I agree it is hard to compare him now to the old classical musicians.

    Certainly there is a difference between Austen and contemporary authors. She has stood the test of time. But my point is, that some of our contemporary romance writers may emerge from the crowd and stand the test of time as well many years from now. Good writing is timeless in my opinion and there is so much more good writing to choose from than in the far distant past. Many romance novels today push the envelope in some ways and if you look at many classics of the past, those authors pushed that envelope as well (i.e. Poe paved the way for writers like Stephen King). I read A Prayer for Owen Meany about 20 years ago. I loved the book, but to tell you the truth I never thought it would go mainstream and become required reading in many schools. I thought Irving might be a little too quirky for that. But it looks well on its way to becoming a classic and maybe that quirkiness is what elevated it. What continues to holds romance back is the pervading stereotype. Some man recently posted on one of these blogs calling romance “porn for women” and he would not “allow” his wife to bring one into his house. Look at Anna Karenina with its theme of adultery. Fanny Hill. You mentioned Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Sex, adultery, incest and just about every other sexual theme has been employed in classical works. If it is gratuitous, then I don’t believe any book with a sexual theme will stand the test of time as classical literature, but to dismiss a book because it contains sexual language (and this was for that man who posted, not you) is to dismiss a wide range of classical literature. By comparing previous books that are deemed “legitimate” literature – many of which have similar themes to romance novels – is to attempt to put to rest some of the stereotyping surrounding the romance genre and open it up to a wider audience.

  18. xina says:

    Yes, I remember that post. Somehow, I felt very sorry for his wife to live with a guy that would control her reading material. Obviously the guy doesn’t read much because love scenes and sex come inside a general fiction novel too. Ken Follett and Tom Perrotta, for example, always have varying levels of sex in their books. I wonder if he’d “allow” those books in his house. **sigh**

  19. Anne Gilbert says:

    I’d have to agree that “RBebecca” isn’t a romance, but a gothic/mystery. I loved it when I read it. However, I think, whether you call it a romance or something else, you have to remember that at the time “Rebecca” was written, there were not “supposed” to be any such things as “assertive” women, and fictional heroines were often written that way: married to men considerably older than themselves, intimidated by these same men. Films liked to do this, too, back “in the day”. But even by the time time romances began with the late Katherine Woodiwiss, people were starting to demand “spunkier” “heroines. A book like “Rebecca” probably couldn’t be written today; most people would get quite disgusted with a heroine that doesn’t even have a name — unless it’s some “literary fiction” type of writing.
    Anne G

  20. Hi, very interesting post, and I agree with alot of it. I have already bookmarked your blog :).Thankyou.