Puritans and the Romance Novel

by | August 26, 2014 |

Puritans in England and the United States

Oliver Cromwell is the most famous British Puritan. He was the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1653 until his death. He closed English inns and theaters for being dens of iniquity. Cromwell also had King Charles I beheaded in 1649. He has the distinction of being the only non-royal to ever head the British government.


If you have a diploma from a high school in the United States, you know that Puritans founded the country. You have also likely seen this famous painting of the arrival of the Puritans in Massachusetts:


The landing of the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock, 1620

A core belief of Puritans was that hard work would get you to Heaven.

Puritans both in England and the early colonies frowned on pleasure of any kind, particularly on the Holy Day. They whipped boys playing football on Sunday. They put women doing unnecessary work in the stocks. What about people who swore? The Puritans punished them with a fine. They threw those who kept swearing into prison.

Puritans and The Scarlet Letter

Enter Hester Prynne (see title image). She is the Alpha and Omega of the Puritan heroine. Mary and Eve, hardworking seamstress and scarlet-letter-wearing Adulteress, all in one. She has inspired countless interpretations and knock-offs. The most recent is the teen comedy Easy A (2010) with Emma Stone.

Prynne is the heroine of The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathanial Hawthorn. It’s on every high school American lit reading list.

I read The Scarlet Letter junior year in high school. I recall we read it along with the works of Cotton Mather (1663-1728). He was the New England Puritan minister known for his fire-and-brimstone sermons and his involvement in the Salem witch trials of 1692.


At the time I remember thinking the sober, hard-working Puritans must have found Mather’s sulfurous sermons highly entertaining. I imagined them sitting on their unforgiving pews every Sunday, soaking up the juicy details of what happened to the wicked.

What effect might Mather’s thrilling descriptions have produced in his parishioners? Some might have delighted in their own self-righteousness. Others might have felt deep satisfaction to hear what would happen to any neighbor who strayed from the straight and narrow.

And the Salem witch trials had to surpass in dramatic impact anything on television today. Call them America’s first reality show: Survivor. The Dunking Stool Episode.

I accuse the Puritans only of determining what kind of entertainment others could have.

Puritans and the Romance Novel

Prynne is the quintessential American heroine. Her narrative arc goes from passionate lapse to a life of proper humility and chastity.

By way of contrast the heroines of most, if not all, contemporary romance novels would qualify as anti-heroines. Their usual narrative trajectory often goes from some kind of hardship to a life full of passion and fulfillment.

And now notice that Prynne is a heroine supposedly worthy of literary consideration. Why? She made a mistake, was publicly condemned, and mended her ways. All the while she steadfastly protected the identity of her lover, the local pastor. For this discretion I suppose we are to admire her.

However, I can only wonder what she saw in such a wimp to have felt any passion for him. And in the current climate I can’t help but say, “Hey, Hester. Ever heard of #MeToo?”

The anti-heroines of romance novels are generally not worthy of literary consideration. Why? Because in the end they choose men deserving of love. Ones who are capable of fidelity, strength, and forthrightness. The romance heroine does not get her comeuppance. She gets what she wants.

The romance novel celebrates the admittedly conservative narrative of human pair bonding. It often involves the establishment of a stable nuclear family. How is it, then, that the entire genre is either denigrated or wholly dismissed by the most conservative literary institutions?

The answer in the present blog is: the continuation of the Puritan ethic in literary judgment.

Puritans: Historical Note

Self-righteous Puritans do not always go unpunished. On the twelfth anniversary of the beheading of Charles I, namely in 1661, the Parliament of Charles II exhumed Cromwell’s body from Westminster Abbey and posthumously executed him. They hung his disinterred body in public then threw it into a pit. They kept his severed head on a pole outside Westminster Hall until 1685.

For a light-hearted look at Cromwell’s reign, see Monty Python

Updated: January 2019

Categorised in: ,

This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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