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How Reading Thomas Hardy Led Me to Romance Novels

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Maddie Rodriguez

Staff Writer

Maddie Rodriguez is a freelance writer and communications specialist who earned her MA in English Literature from the University of Victoria by writing about The Age of Innocence and Gossip Girl (yes, really). When not writing, Maddie can be found reading or watching television; she has Too Many Feelings about both activities, and expresses them via expansive hand gestures or ALL CAPS (depending on how far away the conversation's other party is). Maddie and her fellow reader/writer partner live in Ottawa. They share their apartment with an ever-encroaching tower of books and two calamity-prone cats. Life is never dull. Twitter: @MaddieMuses

We talk pretty regularly about romance here on Book Riot: debunking myths, sharing favourites, and poking gentle fun at how not to write about the genre. I wouldn’t consider myself “hard-core” or widely-read enough to be a romance fan so I don’t feel qualified to write sweepingly about the genre. But what I can talk about my own personal experience of romance-reading. And for me, the path to romance began in earnest with Thomas Hardy.

Yes, really.

Let me jump back to five years ago, when I was an MA student studying 19th century lit. I was lucky enough to have a fantastic academic advisor who was also a fantastic teacher. She created a classroom space that felt safe but encouraged lively, passionate discussion with a focus on textual analysis: a perfect learning environment for me. In the typical manner of a starry-eyed student, I would have followed her to the ends of the earth; practically speaking, that meant signing up for all her classes, including an all-Thomas-Hardy summer seminar.

Let me repeat that: all Thomas Hardy. All. summer. long.

When you think hazy, lazy days of summer reading, you prrrrrrobably don’t think Thomas Hardy. He is … not the most cheerful of writers. To say the least. His books very rarely have a happy ending and – typical to the period he was writing in – women especially do not fare well.

The class itself was as wonderful as I expected it to be and I found Hardy to be an interesting writer. But damn, the subject matter was HEAVY. Oppression and social ostracization and rape and suicide and women dying and kids dying – it was a lot (you never did meet a group of people more in need of a drink and a hug than our class the day we discussed Jude the Obscure for three hours straight). At the end of the day I found myself longing for something lighter – a Hardy corrective if you will.

I wanted to laugh and I wanted to relax, but most of all I wanted to read something and be secure in the knowledge that women would be okay. I cannot stress how important that is to my general mental wellbeing as it pertains to media consumption. At any given time, I need to be reading or watching something where I know women will be okay. Where I do not have to stress and cross my fingers, dreading the rape or ruin or heartbreak lurking around the corner.

I was still completely absorbed by the time (19th century) place (England); I still liked the focus on small, interpersonal dramas. It was just the plots and outcomes I wanted to change. Basically I wanted to keep the field but rig the game so the rules dictated that women would always “win.” It wasn’t about turning off my brain; it was about turning off my stress.

Romance – with its abundance of 19th-century settings, light tone, and reliable narrative structure – was the obvious choice. With a romance novel, I could be confident that the female protagonist would live, that she would find a respectful and appreciative partner, and that, as a bonus, she would get to have satisfying, consequence-free sex.

I had read a couple of contemporary romances before, but like so many women I had been vaguely embarrassed to really read widely in the genre for a variety of overlapping reasons, sex-shaming and intellectual elitism chief among them. But I now I felt ready. I had made strides in being more self-assured and sex-positive for the last few years, and after two semesters of rolling my eyes at the occasional intellectual pissing contests, I had run out of cares to give on the elitism front. I was there, I was just as smart as anyone else, and I had nothing to prove (of course, no one ever has anything to prove, reading-wise, regardless of their level of education, preferred genres, annual book count, or anything else. I always knew that when it came to other people but it took a while for me to apply that philosophy to myself). All I had needed was the push.

Contrary to popular assumptions, finding romance novels that would be smart, well-written, and aligned with my feminist views was actually pretty easy. I mean, I didn’t just roll up to the bookstore and lay hands on the first scandalous duke to catch my eye – I did my research. Paying attention to the right blogs and the right comment sections – shoutout to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books! – lead me straight to Eloisa James, Julia Quinn, and Loretta Chase.

I found I thoroughly enjoyed these reading experiences. It was very soothing to put down my Hardy and my pencils and my little brightly-coloured sticky flags for the night, and just let the witty, flirty banter wash over me as I headed, safe and relaxed, toward that happily-ever-after.

With post-school reading I get to set my own syllabus now, but I still read romance from time to time – sometimes because I do need them for the same “corrective” purpose and sometimes just because they’re fun.

Like I said in the beginning of this piece, I don’t claim to be a highly knowledgeable superfan; romance makes up a small but (and here’s the key) integrated part of my overall reading life. It’s a genre like any other and I got into it the way many of us get into any new type of books – through another, somewhat similar book. This, to me, is one of the great things about reading: it starts you down a path and you don’t know where it is going to lead.

So thanks, Mr. Hardy.