As I read over the posts from the last week here on “Dead Guy,” a word jumped out at me from Jessy’s post last Sunday: “romance,” as in Anna Katharine Green’s preference for the term “criminal romance” over “detective novel.” I grabbed a copy of one of my favorite Victorian novels, and sure enough, my memory was correct. The book is The Moonstone: A Romance. Wherever you come out on who wrote the first detective novel (and the name of my mystery bookstore, “The Moonstone” makes my position obvious), Wilkie Collins has no claim on the first romance.
I did a little hasty research, realizing that having undergraduate and graduate degrees in English Literature does not mean I remember all that I learned. I was told once that education wasn’t learning facts, but learning where to find things, and I find some comfort in that statement. I must have known what I relearned just now. For those of you who, like me, get invitations to college reunions, are shocked by the anniversary to be celebrated, do a little mental math, and exclaim in dismay that it can’t be that long, I will summarize my findings.
Disclaimer: This is a very quick summary, not a dissertation. I skipped a lot!
The term “romance languages” refers to those modern languages derived from Latin, but the “vulgar” Latin of the common people. The “romance” literature of the Middle Ages consisted of stories of adventure, knights, heroic deeds and marvelous incidents, written or recited for entertainment. (The modern French word for “novel” is “roman.”) The extension of the term “romance” to include a love story occurred in the mid-17th century. The evolution of the term to include any type of adventurous tale occurred in the early 19th century. The “romance novel” as we know it, referring almost exclusively to stories of love affairs, is a mid-20th century development.
The 19th century saw the growth of the novel into the dominant form of Western literature. Any good work of fiction has elements of suspense and adventure; it’s what keeps the reader turning pages. So why were some tales of adventure, mystery, or love subtitled “Romance” and others not? Why did Collins call The Moonstone a “romance” while his close friend Dickens, whose characters underwent a great deal of adventure, did not use the term? We can understand why the subtitle of Ivanhoe is also “A Romance.” But a detective novel?
The Moonstone, while primarily a tale of exposing the perpetrator of a theft and his motivation, includes an earlier theft of the same diamond from an idol in India during a military campaign and mysterious eastern men pursuing their property in England. There are elements of the supernatural in the legends surrounding the gem and eerie happenings that may be related to the original desecration of the idol. The atmosphere is often creepy; I still remember my first reading of the description of the quivering quicksand that ultimately swallows one character. These elements put the novel in the tradition of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even though Sergeant Cuff is the forerunner of the classical detective. He collects real evidence, sizes up the credibility of witnesses, and searches for real motivation (follow the money!).
The novels of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope and many other great 19th-century English novelists contained the “love” element, but they were primarily realistic, often critical, pictures of various levels of society, comparable to today’s “literary” fiction. The “romances” were comparable to our “genre” fiction. Alas, even then, there were those snobs who looked down on the good stuff.
I confess to not having read Anna Katharine Green, and Jessy’s posts have piqued my interest. Since Ms. Green preferred the term “criminal romance,” I wonder if there are elements of the romantic tradition in her work. The familiar elements of the detective novel that she introduced do not seem to have the same spooky, sinister flavor that Collins chose. Jessy?