I love romance. I don’t necessarily love romances, but I certainly love the idea.
Stories of seduction, the literature of love — the very thought makes my heart go pitter
patter. But what about those pink-covered, florid, Fabio-emblazoned paperbacks with titles
like Inner Harbor and Savage Heat that pass for romances these days?
What’s up with them? I’m a medievalist, so when I think of romance (from the Old French
“romans,” meaning story) I think of courtly tales of mounted knights and damsels in finery
in the age-old quest for honor. Over the centuries, the genre expanded to include other
“romantic” tales (like the Romance of the Rose,
which I excerpted some time ago), but, still, the romance novel seems quite a step from its
Or so I thought, in my ignorance. For, I confess, I’d never read a romance. Just
looked down my haughty grad student nose at the lot of them. I had seen the covers, read
the titles, knew their popularity, but never cracked the spine of a single Silhouette or
Harlequin. Never considered it, until now. Until, that is, we at Nerve decided to dedicate a
special issue to romances and the literary and sexual role they play in the culture of
So what was a disapproving — if underinformed — snob to do? I decided to track* * *
down a few people who could tell me where to get started. So I set out on my romance
odyssey, and what did I find? More than I bargained for, certainly. Not only some pretty
powerful titillation (not just for girls anymore!) and some brisk, assured storytelling, but
the occasional passage and scene of high literary merit. They occur amidst a mudslide of
cloying prose, to be sure, but clearly that’s part of the point. Like any genre, romance
includes the good and the bad, the laudable and the laughable. And despite the many
troubling questions that the books raise (which will be explored in articles posted later in
this issue), romances make no apology. They are what they are, and, if you want my
opinion, they’re not all that bad.
For this week’s naughty bit, I selected two scenes from the most critically-acclaimed work
in the genre, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, which won the Nobel Prize
for Literature in 1928. Set in Medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter is a three-volume epic — it would be a conventional romance but it doesn’t have a happy ending —
that traces Kristin’s life through the tribulations of rejecting her arranged groom and
marrying her lover, only to find disappointment. The two scenes I selected read like
boilerplate romance seductions, where the heroine’s innocence and resistance are
overcome by the hero’s strength and insistence. It’s a basic form, but given the popularity
of the formula, it must tap into a primary source of female desire. Perhaps this accounts for
the popularity of romance: the novels, written by and for women, are perhaps the last
apolitical haven for the expression of the ravishing fantasy. Honi soit qui mal y pense!
From Kristin Lavransdatter Part 1: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset
translated by Tiina Nunnally
[First, in an herb garden. . . ]
Erlend pressed the maiden to him once and asked in a whisper, “You’re not afraid, are you
Suddenly she vaguely remembered the world outside this night — it was madness.
But she was so blissfully robbed of all power. She leaned closer to the man and whispered
faintly; she didn’t know herself what she said . . .
She stood there with her face raised and received his kiss. He placed his hands at
her temples. She thought it so wonderful to feel his fingers sinking into her hair, and then
she put her hands up to his face and tried to kiss him the way he had kissed her.
When he placed his hands on her bodice and stroked her breasts, she felt as if he
had laid her heart bare and then seized it; gently he parted the folds of her silk shift and
kissed the place in between — heat rushed to the roots of her heart.
“You I could never hurt,” whispered Erlend . . . “Sleep, Kristin, sleep here with
[Later, in a barn, during a storm . . . ]
Every time there was lightning and thunder, Erlend would whisper, “Aren’t you afraid,
“A little,” she would whisper back and then press closer to him . . .
The storm passed over quickly . . .
“I have to go now,” said Kristin.
And Erlend replied, “I suppose you do.” He put his hand on her foot. “You’ll get
wet. You must ride, and I’ll walk. Out of the forest.” He gave her such a strange look.
Kristin was trembling — she thought it was because her heart was pounding so hard
— and her hands were clammy and cold. When he kissed the bare skin above her knee, she
tried powerlessly to push him away. Erlend raised his face for a moment, and she was
suddenly reminded of a man who had once been given food at the convent — he had kissed
the bread as they handed it to him. She sank back into the hay with open arms and let
Erlend do as he liked.
© Tiina Nunnally