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Sexism in a tweed jacket: Romance matters

The late great Barbara Cartland had no doubt what to think of people who called her romantic novels trashy, ridiculous or unrealistic. Even in her nineties, she didn't mince her words. "It's sexism in a tweed jacket," she said, stating that romance novels only ever came under fire because the vast majority of readers are women. Were they the preserve of men, added Cartland, nobody would say a word against them.

She may have worn an insane amount of pink and been horribly lampooned, but it's hard to argue with her. Not only are romances under constant fire, no other genre that popular takes the stick romances do. According to the quickest Google, romances are badly written, unrealistic menaces that lead women into the worst views of romance and relationships in general. In 2012, the psychologist Susan Quilliam stated that, "They offer an idealized version of romance, which can make some women feel bad about themselves because their relationships aren't perfect," presumably because these women honestly expected to end up living at Pembury. Elsewhere, romance's effect on relationships is compared to porn. The Quilliam article goes so far as to blame romance novels for women agreeing to sex without a condom, since this is apparently a 'common scenario'. Indeed.

Quilliam may have a point in that some women may feel inferior reading romance novels, but she is missing the main one completely: this is not the problem of the novels, but of the women. Many women struggle with relationships who have never read a novel in their lives, or with the sense of disappointment that life is not meant to be like this. It's not because they like reading about Jared the sexy race horse owner or men in tight breeches; it's because things aren't going well for them, and everyone starts with high hopes. To bring something so complex and individual down to books - books that give millions of people a lot of pleasure - is bizarre to say the least. And let's not use Fifty Shades here, as every single one of these articles does. Fifty Shades is not a romance story, it's porn. It is almost entirely porn, loads of people loved it, but it's about a pervy billionaire. There is no way anyone read Fifty Shades thinking it was realistic. As to the condom idea, words almost fail me.

For this is where the sexism lies. Not in simply trashing the books women like to read, but in the far worse implication that women are stupid, irresponsible and incapable: that women run their sexual choices according to fun books they stayed in reading one cold night and loved. That women can't distinguish between Lord de Waare's castle and their boyfriend's house. That women basically shouldn't be trusted with fun diversions they particularly enjoy because it leads them into all kinds of mishaps their fluffy, silly little brains can't possibly avoid. That so many women are so helpless in the face of an enjoyable read, these reads should be trashed and derided. That it is so hard for society NOT to target something harmless so many women like. Women may wish their boyfriend was like Lord de Waare and owned a castle, but they don't dump him for a daydream. And 99.99% of women know it is a fun daydream. The idea that they don't is insulting beyond belief.

Back to Cartland, who was such a figure of ridicule as a romance writer, mocked on televisions shows even as a nonagenarian, her appearance laughed at, her books dismissed as utter garbage. Because if anyone epitomises the sexist treatment given to romance novels, it is Cartland, who knew real life all too well: she lost her father and both her brothers in wars.

Dame Barbara Cartland playing to the prejudices of the gallery

While satirists were trashing her, she sold an estimated 2 BILLION books. Two BILLION!!! She wrote over 700 books. She wrote plays (one was banned!), poems and operettas. She was a successful journalist who claimed she'd had a child by the King's son. She successfully campaigned for midwives, gypsies and nursing home reform, worked for the War Office, and was an aviation pioneer in long-tow gliding, but she knew what her public image came down to as a romance novelist. Being Cartland, she put on a big poufy wig, pounds of make-up, and went along with it, but look at the woman. Her entire late-life persona was making fun of the people trying to make fun of her.

Barbara Cartland knew why romance came under fire. She understood what lay behind it and her 2 billion books (I dream...) sold showed how hard she fought against it. She fought to let women keep their fun, their pleasure and their daydreams, pouring out books every year almost up until she died because romance matters. Romance brings joy and happiness into our lives. Romance on the page may not be real or even realistic, but we know it, we love it, and we pore over it with glee.

Romance matters. Romance is wonderful. And the sexism in a tweed jacket can just get over it. Stand up for yourself and your free choices in books. Buy romance!!

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