Puritans and the Romance Novel

by | August 26, 2014 |

One of the most famous Puritans was Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658.) He was the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1653 until his death. He was instrumental in closing English inns and theaters, which, according to him, were dens of iniquity, and in having King Charles I beheaded in 1649. Cromwell has the distinction of being the only non-royal to ever head the British government.

As most US citizens with a high school diploma know, the United States was founded by the Puritans with the landing of the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock in 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. Boys caught playing football on Sunday could be whipped, while women caught doing unnecessary work could be put in the stocks. Swearing was verboten and punishable by a fine. Those who kept swearing could be sent to prison.

Enter Hester Prynne. 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 been the inspiration for countless interpretations and knock-offs, the latest of which may be the teen comedy Easy A with Emma Stone. She is the creation of Nathanial Hawthorn whose Scarlet Letter of 1850 is on every high school American lit reading list.[1]

I read The Scarlet Letter junior year in high school, and I recall we read it along with the works of Cotton Mather (1663-1728), 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 that his sulphurous sermons must have been entertaining to the sober, hard-working Puritans sitting on their unforgiving pews every Sunday.

Mather’s thrilling descriptions of what happened to the wicked could have produced in his parishioners either delicious feelings of self-righteousness or deep satisfactions in imagining what would happen to any neighbor who strayed from the path of 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.

If Prynne is the quintessential American heroine whose narrative arc goes from passionate lapse to a life of proper humility and chastity, then the heroines of most, if not all, contemporary romance novels would qualify as anti-heroines in that their usual narrative trajectory often goes from some kind of hardship to a life full of passion and fulfillment.

And here is where perceptions and evaluations of the romance end up in their usual torque. Prynne is a heroine supposedly worthy of literary consideration. Why? She made a mistake, was publicly condemned, and mended her ways, all the while steadfastly protecting the identity of her lover, the local pastor, and for this 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. The anti-heroines of romance novels are generally not worthy of literary consideration. Why? Because in the end they choose men worthy of love, ones who are capable of fidelity, strength, and forthrightness. The romance heroine does not get her comeuppance; she gets what she wants.

How is it, then, that a genre celebrating the admittedly conservative narrative of human pair bonding often involving the establishment of a stable nuclear family 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.

Historical note: Self-righteous Puritans do not always go unpunished. On the twelfth anniversary of the beheading of Charles I, namely in 1661, Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and was subjected to a posthumous execution. His disinterred body was hanged in chains at Tyburn and then thrown into a pit. His severed head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall until 1685.

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

[1] I have already commented on Hawthorne’s relationship to the “damned mob of scribbling women” his novels were in competition with in my blog “The Romance Novel as an Art Form.”

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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