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At the Back Fence Issue#125

October 8, 2001
At the Back Fence “Extra”

We’ve devoted several columns now to various branches of the romance family tree. Those earlier columns looked at the bodice ripper, the gothic novel, thehistorical novel, the influence of Georgette Heyer, and most recently, the legacy of 19th century author Jane Austen. Ellen Micheletti and Rachel Potter have looked back over time and written this “extra” ATBF about a lesser-read branch of the romance family tree – the inspirational romance. The resultant article is fascinating, whether or not you’ve ever so much as picked up an inspirational romance. I encourage you all to read this piece.

— Laurie Likes Books


The Inspirational Romance

Ellen: A couple of months ago, a fellow librarian who knows of my interest in romance novels told me that he had recently read that inspirational romances were popular. He thought that was deliriously funny and something new. Imagine, mixing religion with a love story. Well, I just smiled and left him to his mirth, but the fact is the inspirational romance has been around for quite some time. Inspirational romances are another branch on the family tree of the romance novel, and while they may be a small branch, they come from roots deep in the history of the American novel.

Americans are for the most part a very religious people. While religion and religious based subjects are do not comprise the majority of our pop culture, they are a thriving sub-culture within the mainstream. Christian rock is very popular, and had a cover story in Newsweek magazine in the summer of 2001. The television series Touched By An Angel is high in the ratings, and books with a religious theme such as Jan Karon’s Mitford series and the Left Behind books by Jenkins and LaHaye regularly show up on the best seller lists. Romance and religion join up in the sub-genre of the romance novel called the inspirational romance. Inspirational romance novels get even less critical attention than regular romance novels, but they are extremely popular with readers, as our AAR reviewers who work in libraries or bookstores can tell you.

The definition of an inspirational romance is one where the love story between the characters is closely intertwined with their development of a relationship with God. Usually at the beginning of an inspirational romance, one of the characters is a firm believer and the other is not. The progression of the relationship between the two characters explores not only matters of love, but also matters of doubt and faith. In an inspirational romance, part of the HEA is where the one character who has been struggling with faith becomes a believer.

The mixture of religion and fiction is very, very old in America. When the United States began to develop its own novelists, the writers ran up against a vocal group of people who believed that reading fiction was a slothful, if not downright sinful habit. Yet despite fulminations from the pulpit, the audience for fiction grew larger and larger, and a big percentage of the audience were women. As I mentioned in my historical cheat sheet article, novels written by women, for women and about women (domestic novels) were the biggest sellers of the 19th century to the despair of male authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne. Most of the readers as well as the writers of these novels were very devoutly religious. So how did they justify their love of novels with their religious beliefs? The authors put large amounts of inspirational writing in their novels. Most of these novels told the story of the coming of age of a young woman. During the course of the story, she falls in love with (and often converts) a young man. The writers seasoned the love story with heaping helpings of moralizing and biblical quotations to make it palatable to the readers, who when criticized for “wasting time”, could point to all the religious aspects of the novel they were reading and thus justify their reading. These domestic novels were the ancestors of the modern inspirational romance.

Some of the writers were more overtly religious than others. Susan Warner was one of the most religious. Her most popular book, The Wide, Wide World, told the story of a young girl, Ellen Montgomery, who is growing up amid want and loneliness. Over the course of the book she struggles to subdue her emotions and become a submissive, believing Christian. In The Wide Wide World, Ellen is aided in her spiritual journey by a devout young woman, Alice Humphrey who tutors her in religion. At Alice’s death, Ellen continues to grow in faith influenced by Alice’s brother John Humphrey. Ellen and John become very close and the book ends with the promise of their marriage. In Warner’s later novel Queechy, the young heroine, Fleda Ringgen is the instrument of conversion. When the flippant hero, Mr. Carleton asks her why she is a believer, she points to a glorious sunset, and asks him who made it. He is converted on the spot. They too, marry in the end.

Augusta Evans Wilson wrote books featuring the bluest of bluestocking heroines. They debate the merits of Catholicism vs Protestantism (Inez), the North vs the South in the Civil War (Macariah) and religion vs rationalism (Beulah). Wilson’s most popular book (and one of the biggest selling novels of the 19th century) was St. Elmo. In it, she featured her usual ultra-pedantic heroine (Edna Earl) but she added a love story and matched Edna against an alpha male bad boy (St. Elmo Murray) who would not be out of place in a modern romance. They clash and fight, and fight and clash, argue and quote scripture until St. Elmo reforms – he becomes a minister and they are married. This book was massively popular.

Even writers who were not as overtly religious as Warner or Wilson, like E.D.E.N. Southworth and Mary Jane Holmes dropped religious references in their books. Just as it seems like most modern novels have one or more obligatory sex scenes, back then novels seemed to have one or more obligatory religious scenes. Male writers too, wrote novels with religious themes, like Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur. Some male novelists took a leaf from the female domestic novelists and combined religion and a love story like E.P. Roe did in his popular book, Barriers Burned Away which featured a story of love and faith set during the Chicago Fire.

Even though the domestic novel featuring the coming of age of the poor girl, lost favor in the early part of the 20th century, religion continued to be a factor in popular fiction. Some of the writers who had best sellers with religious themes were Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, Thomas Constain’s The Silver Chalice, and Lloyd C. Douglas’ The Robe. These books were historical novels with a religious setting and theme.

The woman who has been called the mother of the modern inspirational romance is Grace Livingston Hill. Many of the over 100 books she published are still in print and still very popular. One could make the claim that Hill is to the inspirational romance what Georgette Heyer is to the traditional Regency Romance – they both set the form that other writers follow. Grace Livingston Hill’s basic story was one of a beautiful, nice Christian girl (often in difficult circumstances) who captures the interest of a rich, handsome, worthy gentleman. Even though her books are dated, they still strike a chord with inspirational romance readers and she remains a popular writer. Hill’s books are sweet. No sex, no violence, some angst, some inspiration and a happy ending.

Rachel: My experience with inspirational fiction is a little different than Ellen’s. I never read Grace Livingston Hill. Her books were already sort of dated by the time I started reading adult fiction. Of course, Hill still has a rather wide readership, and her books are still being printed, but I never read her.

I read Christy by Catherine Marshall; the story of an idealistic young girl who follows her calling to teach in the remote areas of the Smoky mountains. It wasn’t really a romance; it was more of a coming-of-age story, but, nevertheless, Christy had a love interest and comes to love and marriage at the end of it. So I was satisfied.

Another author whose books I devoured was Lois T. Henderson, who wrote fictional biographies of Biblical women: Ruth, Hagar, Lydia, Esther. These books are not really romances, (there’s no way of softening up Hagar’s story – she’s essentially abandoned by Abraham and left to wander in the desert with her son Ishmael) but there were enough touches of romance in them to satisfy my early adolescent cravings. And one of her books, Touch of the Golden Scepter, the story of Esther, reads quite a bit like a romance, with King Ahasuerus cast into the role of bored rake and Esther as the heroine with spunk. I reread that one to tatters. Francine Rivers has recently taken up writing these same types of biographical stories. Her first three in a series of five, Unveiled, Unashamed, Unshaken about Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth respectively have been selling well, but whereas Lois T. Henderson’s stories might have appealed to Jewish or Islamic women, Rivers’s books are unabashedly evangelical. Each of the books has a lengthy attached bible study at the end highlighting the message of salvation.

I also read Janette Oke. Her book Love Comes Softly burst on the scene in 1979 and jump started the Christian romance genre. Over the last twenty years it has sold well over a million copies. Love Comes Softly is basically a marriage of convenience plot. A young recently widowed woman, Marty, who has been traveling out West in a covered wagon is proposed to by widower Clark who has a small daughter. They marry to provide the girl with a mother and Marty with a place to stay. It’s a very sweet story and it really sold. Oke went on to write a whole series of books about Clark and Marty, their children and grandchildren. Not all of them can be classified as romances; many of them are simply stories about faith and family, but romantic elements are embedded throughout. Oke also wrote many more series and some single titles. She’s definitely one of the best known and most beloved writers in the inspirational market.

Another pillar of the genre is Gilbert Morris. With many adult series and some for kids as well, he undoubtedly prolific, if somewhat formulaic. His House of Winslow series alone has 25 books and is still going strong. He’s also co-written books with his children, including the very popular Cheney Duvall, M.D. series with his daughter Lynn Morris. Some of the other big names in this market are actually crossover authors from regular romantic fiction. Writers like Terri Blackstock, Lori Copeland, Francine Rivers, and Robin Lee Hatcher, authors who won secular awards for their previous work, who have decided for personal reasons to write inspirational fiction now.

Most inspirational romances draw the line at kisses only sensuality. The vast majority of their readership is fundamentalist or evangelical and would find anything more offensive. But there is, of course, a range here as well. Lori Wick, another very popular author, writes books that are supremely chaste. She seems to have a deep suspicion of passion as a whole. Her characters, even some of her married characters, don’t even kiss until they have everything spiritually hammered out between them. But Francine Rivers very tentatively and subtly explored the idea of marital sexuality in two of her books, Redeeming Love and The Scarlet Thread. In The Scarlet Thread, a book about marital infidelity, the characters have no lack of passion for each other, they just have lost track of everything else. Redeeming Love is an updated version of the Biblical story of Hosea, a man who loved a prostitute. In this book the heroine who has been sexually abused and sold as a prostitute since she was a small child is rescued by a very spiritual man, Michael Hosea, who tries almost in vain to convince her that she is loved and has worth. It is the most powerful and affecting inspirational romance I’ve ever read. Those of you who like the angst of Balogh’s prostitute stories, A Precious Jewel and The Secret Pearl, might do well to find a copy of Redeeming Love.

As there are extremes with sexuality, so also there is a continuum of spirituality in inspirationals. Some authors only touch on their characters’ relationships with God. In The Master’s Plan by Laverne St. George the heroine’s lack of faith is an issue, but the Gospel message of salvation is never really presented. I think that even people of other faiths might still enjoy this book. Contrast this to a book like Sophie’s Heart by Lori Wick in which the plan of salvation is presented at length at least three times and other small points of the Christian faith are explored in depth. Wick’s books I do not believe would be as accessible to the general public because she proselytizes and makes distinctions between Christians. In Wick’s book The Knight and the Dove, set in England during the reign of Henry VIII, the only true “believers” are those who follow the teachings of Martin Luther. Which leaves the majority of the English, who are still Catholic, out in the cold. Wick’s worldview is entirely fundamentalist and evangelical. The majority of readers might not feel at all comfortable with this.

Ellen: I can compare the market for inspirational romance to the market for Regency Romance. Both genres have rather small but fiercely devoted followings. Both genres are somewhat rule-bound – their readers expect certain conventions to be followed and certain things to happen.

While Regency Romances have their rule-breakers such as Mary Balogh who introduced sex into a sweet genre, and Karen Harbaugh who introduced a paranormal element, I haven’t seen too many rules broken in inspirational romance nor have I seen much diversity. The audience and the characters are almost all evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants and have been so from the very beginning. (Susan Warner who wrote The Wide, Wide World taught Bible classes at West Point for years).

Even though I am not a Protestant, I find much to enjoy in some of the inspirational romances I have read. I don’t demand that the writers of inspirational romance preach to my exact doctrinal standards. Anyway, I doubt that I would find any writers who do, since I come from a religious tradition (Catholic) that, while it has produced some superb mainstream writers such as Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor has not produced any well-known writers in the inspirational romance genre. But I have read some inspirational novels that have touched me, especially those that speak to universal themes of doubt, faith, and forgiveness. I’ve enjoyed some of the historical inspirational romances I’ve read by Jane Orcutt and I’ve enjoyed Francine Rivers too. I like Liz Curtis Higgs’ light touch and after reading some reviews, I am going to give Dee Henderson a try. As for the more sectarian writings of Lori Wick – well, she is preaching to the choir and I’m not a member.

When it comes to mainstream romances, a reader can go through most of them without ever finding religion mentioned, but there are some exceptions. Here are some examples of non-inspirational romance books I have read where religion plays an integral part in the book. Barbara Samuel’s Bed of Spices has a Jewish hero and a Christian heroine fall in love during the Middle Ages when Jews were blamed and persecuted for the outbreak of the Black Death. In the book, The Black Angel, also by Barbara Samuel, the Irish hero has to keep his faith a secret for fear of anti-Catholic prejudice. Cheryl St. John has some good religious characters in her books, especially the minister in Joe’s Wife who is one of the few people in the town who is friends with Tye – a prostitute’s son. On the contemporary side, the characters in Sharon Sala’s Always A Lady go to church on Sunday, and say grace before meals. They don’t make a big deal of it, that’s just how they are.

In Beverly Barton’s Sweet Caroline’s Keeper, one of the secondary characters, Lyle Jennings, is a minister who falls in love with Roz who is a Bad Girl. Lyle goes through a lot of conflict, but he loves Roz and marries her – wicked past and all. Lyle is truly a good man who practices what he preaches (he’s a virgin) and if God can forgive, he can too. But what I said earlier remains the norm – for the most part, religion is pretty much ignored in most romances even in ones where the reader might expect to find it at least touched on (i.e. most sheik books).

There is an audience for inspirational fiction – note the huge success of the Left Behind series by Jenkins and LaHaye and Jan Karon’s Mitford books. Frank Peretti’s religious thrillers such as This Present Darkness are popular too, but whether the audience for inspirational romance grows beyond its core group of mostly evangelical Protestant readers remains to be seen.



Time to Post to the Message Board

Very occasionally we don’t provide questions for you to consider before posting to our ATBF Message Board. We think many of you probably haven’t thought much about this “lesser” branch of the romance family tree (let us know if we’re wrong!), but given that the inspirational sub-genre is becoming better known and is attracting some previously only secular authors such as Robin Lee Hatcher, it’s probably time to check it out. And, since many of our readers are always looking for buried treasures, we’d like to take this time to remind you that Dee Henderson, an author of inspirational romantic suspense novels, has now received five B level grades.

We hope to hear from those of you who have read inspirational fiction and/or inspirational romance, and those of you who have wondered about either.


Ellen Micheletti and Rachel Potter



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