The title of Book 2 of the Branwell Chronicles, Romance of the Ruin, is a play on the 1791 Gothic romance by Ann Radcliffe, Romance of the Forest. This title today would evoke ideas of lovers in the woods, secret trysts and dramatic breakups, and perhaps some acts of daring. But the era in which Mrs. Radcliffe was writing defined the word “romance” differently.
A romance in the time of the Regency was a fantastic tale, usually set in the past, where the action was not possible—or at least not probable—in real life (similar to a fairy tale), and where love, if it factored at all, was only a side interest. The word “romance” comes from the Old French word “romanz,” meaning “verse narrative,” and was applied to fireside stories told of knights and magic and chivalry and adventure. The sense of “an adventurous story” persisted through the early 1800’s, with the incorporation of gentlemen rather than knights.
Romances of the Georgian and Regency era were typically filled with fainting damsels in distress, dastardly villains bent on abduction (but oddly preferring marriage to rape), and downtrodden heroes who ended up the long-lost heir of some rich lord. Gothic romances, like Mrs. Radcliffe’s, added paranormal elements, horror, and suspense to the mix.
These Gothic romances reached the zenith of their popularity during the Regency era. The stories were inhaled by readers of all kinds: young, middle-aged, old, male, female, rich, middle-class. Only those who could not afford a subscription to the lending library were restricted to the Bluebooks—cheap, pamphlet-sized novelettes. The lower classes could borrow Bluebooks from the lending library for a penny apiece (these were the precursor to the Penny Dreadfuls of the Victorian Era, which were cheap serials of books that appeared one chapter at a time), or purchase them for sixpence or a shilling. But all classes enjoyed the Bluebooks—there was such a thirst for horror and dread and adventure that an author had to be terrible indeed not to gain an audience in the early 1800’s.
It is perhaps no wonder then that young ladies such as my heroine, Lenora Breckinridge, yearned for adventure and looked for villains behind every bush. The real marvel is that anyone of the time found true love at all, and recognized it as such with so dramatic and fantastic an expectation founded by the craze for Gothic romance.
Etymology of “romance,” https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=romance
The Great Courses, The Life and Works of Jane Austen, Devoney Looser
Gothic Bluebooks: the popular thirst for fear and dread, Susan Thomas, https://library.unimelb.edu.au/exhibitions/dark-imaginings/gothicresearch/gothic-bluebooks-the-popular-thirst-for-fear-and-dread