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Romance novels through the ages

Photo Courtesy Stephen Coles

Photo Courtesy Stephen Coles

While the sensation, devotion and scandal caused by “Fifty Shades of Grey” may seem like a new phenomenon, the romance novel has had a long, storied history.  Here are six examples of some of the most sensational and scandalous romance novels.

“Pride and Prejudice,” 1813

Although Shakespeare may have comedies with romance, every Meg Ryan movie owes its existence to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”  Following Elizabeth Bennet and her novel-length courtship with the absurdly wealthy, perfect Mr. Darcy, Austen founded the “will they, won’t they” tension central to the modern romantic comedy. The prototypical “they hate each other, they bicker a lot, and they fall in love” story, “Pride and Prejudice” has taken away the novelty upon its initial publication.

“Madame Bovary,” 1856

Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece, the novel follows the titular lady as she engages in affairs and spends wildly on luxury to fill the emptiness she feels in her life.  Although painstakingly crafted, the novel was prosecuted for obscenity upon its initial serialization, and thus was almost banned.  However, the surrounding scandal propelled the book to even greater sales. Now, it is considered one of the cornerstone works of modern Western fiction.

“Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” 1928

While “Fifty Shades of Grey” has attracted some scandals, no novel in history has as lurid a public history as “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.”  Originally published privately in Italy in 1928, the book resulted in a seemingly endless stream of obscenity trials.  However, not only was the book, but also the book describing “Lady Chatterly’s” first obscenity trial in England was banned in Australia. The novel remains on the Australian Classification Board (Australia’s censorship agency) and banned for sale in Australia Post stores.

Following the simple story of an aristocratic lady’s affair with her lower class gardener, it grew infamously for its explicit, frequently bizarre and sexual content. While many couples were inspired to attempt amateur bondage after a reading of “Fifty Shades,” it remains doubtful that many couples were inspired by Chatterly to sew flowers into their pubic hair, give their genitals pet names, and hold pretend wedding ceremonies for them.

“Love Story,” 1970

Before “The Fault in Our Stars” was “Love Story,” the original bestselling bummer romance.  Oliver, a Harvard heir, and Jenny, an art student from Radcliffe, enter a whirlwind romance against the wishes of Oliver’s stuffy father.  Struggled but happy, they make ends meet until Oliver learns that Jenny has leukemia.  Attempting to hide Jenny’s condition from her, Oliver hides the secret for a long time until Jenny finds out about her illness. Though Jenny attempts therapies, she dies eventually. Jenny’s death reunites Oliver and his father, but Oliver refutes his father’s apologies with the endlessly quotable “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  The book went on to be the best selling work of fiction of 1970, and was adapted into a film later that year.

“Fifty Shades of Grey,” 2011

One of the strangest success stories in recent literary history, “Fifty Shades” has continually titillate, amuse and befuddle those who have read it.  Originally published as a piece of erotic “Twilight” fanfiction, the book was entitled “Master of the Universe” under the nom de plume “Snowqueens Icedragon” back then. The new edition got extended and reworked, where Bella and Edward were reborn with the lurid soap opera namely Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey.  Anastasia, a meek college student, meets Christian, a wealthy, powerful business man, in an interview. They then start an intense and explicit sexual relationship exploring bondage and domination.

Although captivating the erotic imagination of countless readers, the book has been widely panned by both women rights advocates and the BDSM community.  Women rights advocates have argued that the relationship depicted is abusive and that it’s damaging to romanticize that kind of relationship. The BDSM community, however, has critiqued the unsafe, inaccurate depiction of bondage and domination that could lead to injury and emotional damage to those who attempt to imitate the book at home.  Both accusations have haunted the book’s upcoming film adaptation. Therefore, the film is set to release with a somewhat baffling R rating due to the book’s original extremely explicit content.​

February 13, 2015

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Blake Weil


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