History and Development
Although there are a few different opinions as to when romance as a genre first came into existence, most areas point to the late 1700s, early 1800s. According to New York Times bestselling author Cristin Harbor, the first known romance novel was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded written in 1740. However, it wasn’t until Jane Austen and Ann Radcliffe came into the mix during the 18th and 19th centuries that romance really started to take off. 1 In the genre’s early years, romance itself was the main premise of the plot, without much of anything else. Romantic novels lacked depth in that they did not obtain more than one theme throughout the story. While Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded focused solely on the love between a maid and her master, Jane Austen and Ann Radcliffe introduced readers to a new form of fiction centered around storylines that reflected the lives and struggles of female protagonists. The focus tended to be specifically on the lives of straight, white female protagonists who spent their lives defying social conventions or trying to overcome some form of interpersonal struggle in order to reach their highest from of happiness. Although this genre was initially associated with happy endings, these endings developed into more complex dimensions as time went on. 3
While The Yellow Wallpaper is not technically classified as a romance novel–but rather gothic/horror short story–its’ plot accurately reflects many of the same themes that are seen in early romance novels. The Yellow Wallpaper is written as a series of diary entries from the point of view of a mentally ill woman who is suffering from post-partum depression. She spends her days locked up in a room by her husband in the home they rented for the summer as she tries to fix her relationship with both him and herself. Throughout the book, John continuously treats his wife like a child who is not capable of every day activities, which ultimately leads to her loosing her sanity all together.
The Sub-Genre: Romantic Suspense
Just has romance has continued to evolve over time, so have the sub-genres within it. Although romantic suspense is just one of the many sub-genres within the romance genre, it is one of the top most frequently read romance’s. 7 According to romance author Tracy Cooper-Posey, “romantic suspense draws from the original gothic novels” 4, composed early on. These gothic novels are described as containing a story of a young female protagonist who usually finds herself feeling vulnerable and alone in some remote location, then a mysterious hero comes along who ultimately becomes a threat to her in some way. In the end, the romance nor the mystery tend to be resolved, hence the suspenseful aspect. Tracy also claims that the origins of romantic suspense are generally credited to the romance author, Mary Stewart and her classic novel Madam, Will You Talk? , written in 1955. Mary Stewart is known for her ability to include equal parts of romance and suspense, which is what constitutes a successfully written romantic suspense novel. 4
Rhetorical Functions and Organizing Principles
A romantic suspense novel must include a plot with mystery, suspense, or thrill as a key competent for the protagonist to solve. 5 However, romance must still be an integral part of the plot. The best crafted romantic suspense novels make sure there is an equal blend of mystery and romance. It is important to remember that one writing style should not overpower the other, Cristin Harbor stated in one of her blog posts. Romantic suspense novels often reflect the sides of two different worlds: the apparent reality and the unknown. To further add to the mystery, the main characters of the story are often from different social worlds and would not necessarily otherwise mix. 6
Romance novels are most often written to reflect the desires of an audience. For many, romance novels are used as an outlet to escape and gain inspiration, hope, and enlightenment, even if the story is completely unrealistic. In one of her blog posts, Harbor said “some love the idea of two people facing incredible obstacles or overcoming the most extreme of circumstances. For them, romantic suspense novels are the perfect type of fiction.” An audience’s desire for romance is not always strictly limited to a smooth sailing happily ever after, many crave intense conundrums.
In more recent years, romantic suspense has become arguably ‘dark’– and in some cases disturbing- – but nevertheless, always includes a romantic element. The Silent Patient and The Wife Upstairs are two recently published New York Times bestselling novels that successfully encompass the plot of a romantic suspense. These stories allow us to point to the appropriate organizing principles required in order for a novel to be classified as a romantic suspense. We see these principles and themes presenting themselves through the novel’s plots and nature of telling their story.
The Silent Patient is told in a series of journal entries by the female protagonist, just like The Yellow Wallpaper. Further, the protagonist, Alicia Berenson, also struggles with mental health, much of which has to do with her husband. The novel is based around infidelity in their relationship and the murder of her husband. As the story progresses, it eventually becomes clear that Alicia has some part in her husbands death, which ultimately leads to her lack of sanity and tragic downfall overall. The Silent Patient is just one example that shows us the themes seen in early gothic novels have trickled down to continue making an appearance in modern romantic suspense novels.
The Wife Upstairs is a modern twist on the novel Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Brontë in 1847. This novel’s plot follows a young women, Jane Bell, as she embarks on a new start in life after a traumatic past. But when Jane meets Eddie, the most mysterious resident in her neighborhood, things take a turn for the worse again. The story revolves around Jane’s suspicion of Eddie’s involvement in the disappearance of two woman, one of which was his wife Bea. As the book goes on, Jane becomes increasingly haunted by Bea’s mysterious death and disappearance. The plot of The Wife Upstairs successfully captures the tale of a suspenseful forbidden romance where the protagonist must choose herself or her lover in order to keep her sanity. The second part of the story is also told through the diary entries of Jane, Eddie, and Bea, similarly to The Yellow Wallpaper and The Silent Patient.
It is important to note that modern romance novels do encompass the same stylistic features as an early romance novel such as The Yellow Wallpaper does. While The Yellow Wallpaper contains visual illustrations, The Silent Patient and The Wife Upstairs do not. In fact, it is very rare for fiction novels to include illustrations in the present day.
In 2017, Romance Writers of America conducted a study about people who read romance. Below are some of their findings which highlight the social context surrounding the population of romance readers. 7
- 82% of females consume romance novels.
- 18% of males consume romance novels.
- The average age of a romance reader was found to be between 35 and 39 years old.
Way of Acquiring
- The study found that the main ways of acquiring romance novels was through:
- Purchasing in print from an online store.
- Purchasing as an e-book from an online store.
- Borrowing from friends or relatives.
- Borrowing from a library.
- Purchasing from brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Why Readers Desire Romance
According to Romance Writers of America, “half of romance readers read romantic suspense, followed by erotic and historical as the most popular genres”. 7 Most consumers of romance novels are looking for an outlet to escape their current reality and slide into one that is more appealing, even if it may be one that is clearly unattainable. In fact, most romance stories are quite unrealistic. Readers of romantic suspense tend to seek some form of adventure paired with romance. Romantic suspense grabs the reader by “creating a sense of caring about the character, and connections make things more exciting for readers”, Cristin Harbor says in another blog post. 2
Romance separates itself from other genres by primarily being written by women, for women, and about women. Still, it is important to note that modern romance novels have expanded over time to include authors and protagonists of different race, gender, and ethnicity. 3
- Harbor, C. (2022). “Evolution of The Romance Novel”. Cristin Harbor.
- Harbor, C. (2022). “Romantic Suspense Novels: Get Your Romance Fix Along With Suspense”. Cristin Harbor.
- Pagan, A. (2019, February 15). “A Brief History of the Romance Novel”. New York Public Library.
- Posey C, T. (2013, January 13). “What IS Romantic Suspense Exactly?” Tracy Cooper-Posey | Stories Rule.
- Romance Novel. (2022, March 17). Wikipedia.
- Romantic Thriller. (2022, March 20). Wikipedia.
- Romance Writers of America. (2017). “About The Romance Genre”. Romance Writers of America.
- Tilly, M. (2021, July 28). “Rules For Writing Romantic Suspense”. Crime Reads.