Don’t Call Them Trash

Romance novels celebrate female pleasure and aspiration.

Illustration based on Fragonard's painting "Young Girl Reading" of a girl in yellow dress reading a book, with a mirror image of the girl appearing out of the book along with flames and smoke
Illustration by Nícolas Ortega. Source: Jean Honoré Fragonard.

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One of my most enduring school memories is of an austere English teacher urging us—a class of two dozen 13-year-old girls with all the raging hormones of a Harry Styles arena tour—not to succumb to the books of Jackie Collins. “If you read trash, girls,” she articulated, with icy precision, “you will write trash.” Thinking back on this, all I can summon is: I wish. Collins sold half a billion novels during her life, made more than $100 million, and had a Beverly Hills mansion and a gold Jaguar XKR with the license plate LUCKY77. We should all be so blessed as to write like she did.

Still, for me, the message stuck—not a moralistic warning about the dangers of sexually explicit popular fiction, but an aesthetic one. The idea that “bad” novels could poison someone’s thinking, could plant roots in the recesses of her brain only to send out shoots of florid prose years later, was an alarming one. I read all of Jackie Collins anyway, while feeling slightly embarrassed about it, my initiation into a world where virtually everything that’s pleasurable for women is shaded with guilt. Her characters—bold, beautiful women striding through Hollywood in leopard-print jodhpurs and suede Alaïa boots—embodied a combination of desirability and ambition that was totally intoxicating to a British teenager with a school uniform and a clarinet. And her writing did settle into my subconscious, I can see now, but not at all in the ways my teacher feared it would.

Dip even a toe into the pool of popular fiction by women writers, and you’ll discover that this word, trash, has a long lineage. George Eliot, in her 1856 essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” excoriated what she interpreted as “the most trashy and rotten kind of feminine literature,” a genre of contemporary fiction that concerned itself merely with “the ideal woman in feelings, faculties, and flounces,” written by ladies in “elegant boudoirs, with violet-colored ink and a ruby pen.” One year earlier, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a fit of pique, had vented to his publisher about the “damned mob of scribbling women” dominating the American literary market. “I should have no chance of success,” he pouted, “while the public is occupied with their trash.”

The intellectual disdain for novels enjoyed by women often went hand in hand with a paternalistic sense of unease about how these kinds of stories might influence the innocent, unsuspecting reader. “Let us go into the houses of the poor, and try to discover what is the effect on the maiden mind of the trash which maidens buy,” Edward G. Salmon suggested in his 1886 essay “What Girls Read.” “We should probably find that the high-flown conceits and pretensions of the poorer girls of the period, their dislike of manual work and love of freedom, spring largely from notions imbibed in the course of a perusal of their penny fictions.”

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Salmon might have been onto something. I’m not here to suggest that all, or even most, romance novels aspire to be highbrow endeavors (the works of E. L. James in particular are still the most brain-meltingly awful and regressive things I’ve ever read), or that a novelist’s popularity is a metric for literary accomplishment. Or that no “literary” fiction these days devotes sexually graphic attention to female ambitions and appetites. But it’s worth considering where so much of the anxiety over popular stories written by and for women, especially romances, might stem from. The history of fiction is full of stories about men who do; their deeds, wars, journeys, heroic triumphs are the texture of the tale. In stories about women, by contrast, characters primarily are: The action lies in their inner lives, dreams, conflicts, desires.

“Admiration for the heroine of a romantic novel … is love for an idealized image of oneself,” Rachel Brownstein wrote in her 1982 book, Becoming a Heroine. The subversive potential of so many works derided as trash is that they focus on female interiority, female pleasure, female aspiration. The “notions” sparked by romantic fiction and Nancy Meyers movies alike are that women’s earthly desires—for love, for sex, for chocolate cake, for professional elevation, for pristine Poggenpohl kitchens with white-marble backsplashes—can and should be gratified.

How fitting, then, that many of the ideas this genre draws from were pioneered by a woman whom hardly anyone remembers. So argues the historian Hilary A. Hallett in Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood. Glyn’s 1907 novel, Three Weeks, about a young man drawn into an obsessive romantic relationship with a married European royal, was more explicitly sexual than a mass-market novel had ever been (the bookseller WH Smith & Son refused to stock it) but also, Hallett insists, more progressive. It made the case, while the Victorian era and its mores still loomed large in the popular imagination, that women’s sexual desire not only existed—a heretical concept—but burned with an intense heat. (Glyn’s female protagonist describes love in one scene as “a purely physical emotion … It means to be close—close—to be clasped—to be touching—to be one.”) Its power was so great, in fact, that it threatened the patriarchal structures that the 20th century was built on. If women experience desire with a fervor equal to men’s, what else might they also secretly be craving? Glyn, in her autobiography, described the furious response to Three Weeks as “a curious commentary on the stupendous hypocrisy of the Edwardian age.”

Glyn enjoyed unprecedented success as a novelist during the early 1900s—by 1917, Three Weeks had sold more than 2 million copies—and went on to become an equally successful Hollywood screenwriter. Yet more than a century later, her radical vision of sexual politics seems to have all but vanished from the screen, as mid-budget movies have waned and audiences for streaming have become more segmented. The romantic comedy, after an ’80s and ’90s heyday that at its best furthered the idea that men and women could meet on equal terms, is essentially dead in the U.S. (with sporadic, gloomy attempts at resurrection—2022’s Marry Me, starring Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, featured an extremely silly odd-couple setup and almost negative sexual tension between its stars). Sex on television is largely relegated to the dead-eyed, joyless teen couplings on Euphoria and the bouncy, intimacy-avoidant bonkfests of Sex Education. Even adaptations of romantic fiction such as Outlander and Bridgerton struggle; sex is lamentably suffused with violence in the former, and was quietly sidelined in the most recent season of the latter. Meanwhile, romance novels, reliably one of the most profitable and well-read genres in book publishing, have for decades featured a degree of diversity and (not always heteronormative) sex positivity that puts mainstream culture to shame, yet are still derided.

Elinor Sutherland was radicalized, as so many girls are, in the library. Born on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, in 1864 and raised in Canada after her father’s death, she moved back to Jersey around the age of 7 when her mother married a wealthy Scotsman with his own ancestral castle. (Aristocrats, it’s worth noting, are a popular trope in romantic fiction; the romance novelist Maya Rodale points out in Dangerous Books for Girls that dukes in 1818 made up 0.0001735 percent of the English population but feature in 1.7 percent of the titles of romance novels.) When Elinor, or “Nell,” was a teenager, her stepfather decreed an end to her formal education, leaving her to her own devices in a dusty, wood-paneled room on the ground floor of the family home. There, she read Walter Scott, William Thackeray, and Samuel Pepys, whose diaries offered a glimpse into the more libidinous Restoration era. Hallett lays out Glyn’s story with novelistic verve, drawing on her diaries as well as taking some imaginative liberties: She narrates how, one evening, Nell closed her bedroom door, put the candle on the bureau, and undressed while thinking about Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, who taught her “the importance of not getting trapped in one place, of the wonderful tonic of changing scenes.”

This stylized treatment continues through Nell’s debut in society, where, Hallett writes, she stunned the London season with her “red hair, milk-white skin, green eyes, and a waist that looked small enough to snap in two.” (If you’ve ever read a Harlequin novel, you know the type.) She had no dowry and was obliged to shrewdly pick a partner even as the Victorian era enshrined the idea of marrying for love. At her middle-class core, Hallett writes, she wanted “a man who possessed charm and animal force as well as cash”—the perennial dream espoused most memorably in the fiction of Jane Austen. In 1892, at the age of 28, spinsterhood on the horizon, she married Clayton Glyn Jr., a sportsman from a respectable English landowning family and a bon viveur who would, before too long, gamble away everything he’d inherited and proceed to do much the same with his wife’s very substantial earnings from her work.

When Glyn began to write, three main forces motivated her: financial necessity, imaginative escapism (not to mention sexual frustration), and her emerging belief that the strictures of society did girls and women a disservice. Don’t be put off by Hallett’s penchant for exhaustively researched historical digressions (about the intricacies of the money-lending system in turn-of-the-century London, for example) or her susceptibility to the gauzy style of her subject (“Nell believed that outside forces beckoned her now to join in the dance of life and embrace the pleasures of the flesh”). She makes a persuasive case that Three Weeks, Glyn’s best-known work, busted open the boundaries of mainstream fiction. “The novel’s insistence that sexual compatibility was a key component of a successful courtship pressed the marriage plot in an eroticized direction,” Hallett writes. Glyn worked within the constraints of what was—just—publishable by trafficking in descriptive insinuation rather than explicit rendering; in one chapter, a character “purred as a tiger might have done while she undulated like a snake.” With this authorial dance, Hallett argues, Glyn “transgressed her entire culture’s code.”

Three Weeks, written in what Hallett likens to a haze of longing for a recently departed paramour, was an extraordinarily bold work for a writer in 1907 to publish under her own name. The so-called sex novel had already existed for centuries alongside its more sedate cousin, the romance. (John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, popularly known as Fanny Hill, published in 1748, was so graphic in its biography of a former sex worker that it was banned in the U.S. until a Supreme Court ruling in 1966.) But Glyn brought the two genres closer than any other writer had managed. Three Weeks is told from the perspective of a well-off young Englishman banished to Europe after a flirtation with an unsuitable local girl. There he becomes sexually enthralled by a woman he notices one night dining in his hotel.

She has—unbeknownst to him—fled the clutches of her husband, a cruel and psychopathic Slavic king; she’s smitten with the Englishman, Paul, and decides to take his sexual and romantic initiation into her own hands. Paul is young and handsome and what we might now call basic. His passions include hunting, clothes, and ogling “perfectly virtuous” young women at the theater. The lady (who is only ever referred to as such) gently mocks him as a “great big beautiful baby.” Before he can be her lover, he has to submit to her authority and accept her terms. “I don’t belong to you, baby Paul,” she tells him when he tries to pay for lunch during one of their outings in the Swiss mountains. “You, for the day, belong to me.”

Three Weeks, in so many ways, predicted the formula for the romance novels that would follow it. The genre tends to be structured around accumulation: of pleasure, of possessions, of status. The protagonist, who is almost always female, begins the novel with next to nothing and emerges having gathered all kinds of capital. In a world in which marriage has been enshrined as “the one great profession open to our class since the dawn of time,” as Virginia Woolf wrote, love and wealth were already tied in the popular imagination. Three Weeks, though, bucks the marriage plot (the lady pursues the man because she desires him, and is more intent on having his child than his hand). It emphasizes the sensuality of luxury, the headiness of comfort, “the redemptive powers of sexual pleasure when performed in the key of glamour,” as Hallett writes.

The novel contains all the tropes of popular escapist fiction: exotic locations, extravagant sumptuousness, an older, experienced person seducing a naive ingenue. But the seducer is, crucially, a woman. And the most rebellious feature of Glyn’s writing is that the lady insists that Paul indulge her, meet her on her terms. “I must try to please you,” Paul learns, “or you will throw me away.” In positioning Paul as the ingenue transformed by his entanglement with the lady, Three Weeks was more subversive than most standard romantic fare. Callow and two-dimensional at the beginning, he grows more intelligent, more sensitive, and more fascinating to the people he encounters.

The novel was a sensation. Glyn went on to write another two dozen books, some more successful than others. (The Career of Katherine Bush, a 1916 novel about a young woman who unabashedly has a sexual relationship with a man she doesn’t intend to marry and is later rewarded by finding true and satisfying love with someone else, still feels strikingly bold.) But the more Three Weeks sold, the more its critics attributed its success to readers who couldn’t appreciate real art—who were, in one reviewer’s words, “naughty little school girls and erotic housemaids.”

Glyn found the respect for her talents that eluded her in the literary world when she arrived in Hollywood in 1920, which in its early days was unexpectedly receptive to female creators, who wielded a surprising amount of influence as writers and even directors. A shrewd producer named Jesse Lasky, recognizing Glyn’s flair for drawing obsessive media attention, had invited her. In the final section of her book, Hallett recounts Glyn’s decade-long career as a screenwriter, during which she pioneered a number of enduring concepts. She coined the term It Girl for the actor Clara Bow, defining it as “that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force.” She fostered the star power of Rudolph Valentino, in whom she sensed both a forceful personality and a tender heart; she deduced that he would be irresistible to women because of his combination of “masculine and feminine traits.” (You might say her insight anticipated the “internet’s boyfriend” label, applied to the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Oscar Isaac, and Timothée Chalamet.)

But female clout in Hollywood didn’t last. The consolidation of the industry, the rise of the studio system, and the growing dominance of exclusively white and male unions in the mid-1920s, Hallett writes, led to the eclipse of once creatively powerful women. Which in turn led to pop-culture fare that was much less curious about and attentive to female audiences. From 1934 until 1968, thanks to the enforcement of the moralistic Motion Picture Production Code, sex was largely nonexistent on-screen, and portrayals of female agency, too, went into retreat. When filmmakers in the ’70s and ’80s turned with renewed interest to sex, the male gaze almost entirely defined, and narrowed, the subject. The erotic thrillers of the era cast women as femmes fatales, bunny boilers, psychopaths in thrall to murderous sexual obsession. The romantic comedy briefly revived the concept of female characters with authority and desires of their own, but was largely eclipsed in the 2000s by the raunch comedy and the dawn of the superhero era.

Television hasn’t fared much better in contemplating female desire. The golden age of prestige TV had space for nagging wives, murdered sex workers, elaborate HBO orgies, and not much else. Consider, if you will, how rapturous the response was to the Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, a gorgeously rendered drama about the redemptive power of not just sex, but intimacy. In a medium where sex tends to be colored with violence, politics, or trauma, here was a series portraying the communion of two people, and the shifting balance of power between them, as something primal and life-altering instead.

My theory about Rooney’s popularity has always been that she’s offering up highbrow romance to a culture that yearns for it, and all too rarely finds it in “literary” fiction. (See also: Céline Sciamma’s 2019 historical drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, in which a female painter and a noblewoman forge an erotic and creative connection that transforms them both.) Contemporary audiences are starved for charged considerations of the modern dynamics of love, sex, and power. Elinor Glyn knew that the impulse to fall in love with another human being, to connect physically, emotionally, and mentally in a way that enriches—and challenges—everyone involved, is one of the most crucial forces in human history. So why is the genre of romance left largely on its own to unpack that impulse?

Perhaps because, as Glyn found, any work that dares to give its whole focus to the subject of female desire, its unapologetically incongruous elements and its imaginative energy, just can’t seem to escape the stigma of “trash.” Disdaining readers of romance as susceptible schoolgirls and bored housewives seeking escapist thrills is easier than recognizing what Glyn (and Jackie Collins, and Edward G. Salmon, too) sensed: the revolutionary potential inherent in women expressing and exploring what they really want.

This article appears in the September 2022 print edition with the headline “The Case for Bodice Ripping.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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