Chapter 1 — Debating the Obvious

[Print edition page number: 1]

In an odd twist of fate, for most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the romance genre is routinely subject to disdain or dismissal as popular or genre fiction rather than literary fiction. The tone of dismissal varies. Robert Gottlieb’s sarcastic commentary is probably more biting than most:

Regency, psychopaths, wedding planners, ranchers, sadists, grandmas, bordellos, dukes (of course); whips, fish tacos, entails, Down syndrome, recipes, orgasms — romance can absorb them all, which suggests it’s a healthy genre, not trapped in inflexibility. Its readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effect? Harmless, I would imagine. (Gottlieb 2017)

Diane Callahan’s efforts to explain the differences between genre fiction and literary fiction lack the vitriol of Gottlieb’s, even if her observation seems to affirm the sentiments behind Gottlieb’s dismissal of romance:

Beyond purpose and plot scale, to me the most distinctive marker between the two categories is writing style. Genre fiction often uses more accessible prose that reaches a wider audience and doesn’t distract from the story being told. Literary fiction values carefully crafted sentences that can take more work to understand, but they attempt to capture precise images and feelings; they are often lyrical and layered. (Callahan 2020, original emphases)

In a New York Times Books Review interview, author Philippa Gregory denounces what she refers to as “lazy, sloppy genre novels” (Tamaki, 2017). Gregory ends her criticism by stating, “choosing to write a genre novel is like fencing the universe because you are afraid of space.” Allison Flood, in a The Guardian response to Gregory’s criticism, writes, “quite apart from[2] the fact that every piece of writing falls into one genre or another, the comment is bizarre first because of who Gregory is. The author of The Other Boleyn Girl, The Taming of the Queen, and most recently The Last Tudor, Gregory writes historical fiction — and is indisputably a genre novelist herself” (Flood 2017). In fact, as Flood observes, “[i]t becomes even more bizarre when, in the same interview, Gregory goes on to name her favourite fictional hero as a Georgette Heyer gent: Vidal, in Devil’s Cub.” Flood concludes her commentary by wryly noting, “So Gregory clearly enjoys reading ‘lazy, sloppy’ genre writing herself. It’s also a miscalculation because I’d say the readers of her books include a vast swath of romance readers. Romantic relationships between the kings and queens of yore are generally at the heart of Gregory’s novels.”

Within the genre itself, “self-proclaimed” romance authors seem to have trouble avoiding the “genre fiction” pitfalls. Elizabeth Reid Boyd titles the essay she wrote for The Guardian on February 13, 2017, “Trashy, Sexist, Downright Dangerous? In Defence of Romantic Fiction” with a preamble of “Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd spent publication day of her first romance novel in a darkened room. She has since discovered there’s nothing to be ashamed of” (Boyd 2017). Even the romance genre’s fiercest advocates appear to reinforce this logic with titles such as A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Historical Romance Fiction, New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, Making Meaning Popular Romance Fiction, and Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Why not “romance genre” or “romance literature”? Why terms such as “fiction” or “story”? Of these titles, A Natural History of the Romance Novel is one that gestures toward the literary history of romance genre.

What is strikingly implicit in these academic book titles is an inescapable tie to academic ideologies about the cultural “purpose” of fictive writing. Often viewed as a guilty pleasure, for women only, and a misleading depiction of gender relations, romance has had more than its share of negative press over the course of its modern history. During the early modern period, the genre also received praise for its positive depictions of male and female virtue even as it was condemned for its frivolity. Caught between the rock, literature, and a hard place, genre fiction of the worst sort, the romance genre has had a contentious existence. Part of the issue lies in romance’s generic fluidity: is it a genre, a literary mode[3], or merely a literary convention similar to metaphor or trope? Is romance an emotional state of being tied to relationships that are sexual in nature but inevitably lead to the protagonists “falling in love and enjoying a happily ever after” life? Or, is romance all of these and therein lies the problem?

Several factors contribute to the ways in which literary critics and academic scholars approach the romance novel. First, there is the implicit notion of literary canonicity and what texts are rightly labeled “literature” or “artistic” and what texts are relegated to the arena of popular fiction or “entertainment.” The trivializing or belittling of the romance genre is not a recent phenomenon that occurs every February or when a “literary critic” or an author decides to mark territory. When we trace the historical debates about the complex relationships between epic, romance, and history, we find that writers themselves were not only ambivalent but also concerned as to the social or cultural value of romances. George Puttenham dismisses the romance as a “historical ditty,” (Puttenham 1968/1589, 33) declaring that “[r]omances or historical rimes [are] made purposely for [the] recreation of the common people at Christmas dinners and bridals, and in taverns & alehouses and such other places of base resort” (83).

Torquato Tasso’s Discorsi dell’arte poetica offered a challenge to those who claimed that romance and epic are distinct poetic forms, arguing “that since [he finds] no essential difference between the epic and the romance, it clearly follows that there is no generic distinction between them” (Rhu 1993, 121). For Tasso, “the romance (the name they use for Orlando Furioso and the like) is a kind of poetry different from epic, unknown to Aristotle, and therefore not bound by Aristotle’s rules for epic” (Tasso 1973/1594, 68). Drawing upon Horace, Tasso contends that “those poems are better that win more approval from custom … And custom prefers the kind of poetry called romance, which therefore must be judged the better” (68). Clearly, Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser in writing The Arcadia and The Faerie Queene respectively indicate a preference for Tasso and Ariosto over the dictates of theorists such as Puttenham.

Other Renaissance and early modern English writers also found the romance genre in prose form (especially in the romance novellas of Bandello [c. 1480–1562] and Cinthio [1504–1573]) to be a much more fruitful and lucrative source for their interventions in the production of literature. In its various modes, the romance provided plots and characters that English[4] writers often deployed in their drama and prose fiction. Works such as John Lyly’s Euphes or George Gascoigne’s The Adventures of Master F.J. helped to legitimate prose fiction as an acceptable heir apparent to the romance in poetic mode, and thus give rise to the modern novel. At least one twentieth-century scholar, A. C. Hamilton laments this evolution: “Elizabethan prose fiction was succeeded by the novel. That devourer and confounder of all literary genres corrupts the taste for romance by setting up demands for realism, correspondence to every-day experience, and a serious criticism of life which the former [romance] cannot satisfy” (Hamilton 1984, 23). Even so, Hamilton continues, “of course, romance was never superseded” by the novel, it “only went underground” (24). What Hamilton alludes to in his condemnation of the novel is a long-standing tension about the romance genre, its nature, and its ideological or cultural purposes.

Throughout the sixteenth century, and even into the seventeenth century, the complicated and conflicting relationship between the romance genre and historiography — tension alluded to in Puttenham’s description — remained relatively intact. That is, despite describing their texts as “trifles” or “toys,” early modern writers of the romance often envisioned their texts as engaging in the practice of historiography, albeit a bit more imaginatively drawn than the type of factual histories produced by chronicle writers. Romance authors engaging the crux of history as epic and the nature of romance were no longer emphatically insisting that their romances fell squarely into place as History. Equally, with the growing popular interest in the novella, the verse epic mode of narratively creating storylines began losing ground as the privileged site for the romance genre. An emerging non-aristocratic readership, publication costs, and the constraints of verse form opportunity may have contributed to a rapidly shifting preference for the prose form of romance.

This cultural shift, however, did not deter writers and theorists from attempting to both define and construct the romance text as a continuation of epic historiography. For example, in his preface to Parthenissa: A Romance in Four Parts (1655), Roger Boyle writes,

All the Readers of Parthenissa may wonder at my making of Spartacus and Perolla contempories, & that Artabbanes & Spartacus[5] should be the same Person &c. But I hope [they] will no longer do so, when I Mind [remind] them, that I write a Romance, not a History, and that therefore though all I Relate be not the Truth, yet if a Part be, I perform more than what the title of my Book does confine me to. (Boyle 1953/1655, a3–4)

Though not entirely abandoning its claim to historical narrativity, romance was deemed to be, as Pierre Daniel Huet would write in 1670, “Fictions of Low Adventures, disposed into an Elegant Style in Prose, for the Delight and Instruction of the Reader” (Huet 1970/1715, 46). Unlike Huet, Georges de Scudery seeks to retain romance’s claim to historical narrativity (de Scudery 1952/1674). After a brief discussion of the structural rules associated with romance in his preface to Ibrahim, or the Illustrious Bassa, de Scudery highlights what he considers to be the most significant: “but amongst all the rules which are to be observed in the compositions of these works, that of true resemblance is without question the most necessary; it is, as it were, the fundamental stone of this building” (3). He then notes that, in his own work, he has “observed the Manners, Customs, Religions, and Inclinations of People: and to give a more true resemblance to things, I have made the foundations of my work Historical, my principal Personages such as are marked out in the true History for illustrious persons, and the wars effective” (4).

de Scudery’s theoretical concept of the romance genre does not entirely settle the debates on its function, however. How is the reader supposed to comprehend a text that is described as a romance yet is also called a history? And what is the “verisimilitude” or “true resemblance” that writers presume or believe that they are invoking as history in their romances, and that the readers ought immediately or intuitively to comprehend? On the one hand, these questions are not entirely answerable as it is the very nature of romance to generate “error” and digression as the structural, even functional, principle of the romance mode (Parker 1979). Hence, most scholarly theories and analyses of romance accept that there is an inherent difficulty in attempting to define romance and instead address its “functional literary life,” which involves a series of “generic transformations over time resulting in a kind of dynamic continuum”[6] (Brownlee and Brownlee 1985, 1). In his groundbreaking Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye writes that

the romance is nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfilment dream, and for that reason it has socially a curiously paradoxical role. In every age the ruling social or intellectual class tends to project its ideals in some form of romance, where the virtuous heroes and beautiful heroines represent the ideals and the villains the threats to their ascendancy (Frye 1957, 186).

To return to the question of definition, Patricia A. Parker cogently observes that

one of the problems in discussing the form of romance has always been the need to limit the way in which the term is applied. I have chosen to approach the subject in a way which does not cover all the forms we call “romance” but may provide what a romance poet might call a “prospect” on them… Romance… therefore, is characterized primarily as a form which simultaneously quests for and postpones a particular end, objective, or object. (Parker 1979, 4)

Similarly, Corrine Saunders finds that “the genre of romance is impossible adequately to define,” which “is not so surprising when we recall that the term finds its origins in the French word romanz, meaning simply literature written in the vernacular, the romance language of French” (Saunders 2004, 2). Nonetheless, Saunders astutely postulates, “perhaps it is not fanciful to view romance as a genre waiting to happen, a story already told, situated in those moments of classical writing, inherent in the earliest of fictions and fundamental to human nature” (2).

Romance structurally confounds as much as it organizes. In other words, romance is viewed as an adventure or quest located more often than not in “nature” and predicated upon the notion of a wandering heroic figure. Concepts such as salvation or redemption, realism, possibility, and punishment are thematic hallmarks of the romance plot, while love and a happily ever after are its generic conventions. In the end, what is important[7] in these studies of the romance genre is the idea of the social act. Or, as Fredric Jameson argues,

as for romance, it would seem that its ultimate condition of figuration, on which the other preconditions we have already mentioned are dependent — the category of worldness, the ideologeme of good and evil felt as magical forces, a salvational historicity — is to be found in a transitional moment in which two distinct modes of production, or moments of socioeconomic development, coexist. (Jameson 1981, 148)

In essence, romance appears to be “bound up with a complex, evolving, historical situation” and, consequently, “different romances in different historico-literary contexts call … for methodological heterogeneity” (Jameson 1981, 148).

The reader of this chapter might well ask, in a book dealing with racism and colorism, why begin with a genealogy of scholarly theories on the romance genre? Does it really matter what form it takes if the conclusion is “different historico-literary contexts” create definitional ambiguity? Furthermore, if the genre’s texts are “bound up with a complex, evolving, historical situation,” then why view twentieth- and twenty-first romance fiction as outside the framework of Literature and cast the same cloak on pre-twentieth-century romance texts such as Faerie Queen, Urania, Pride and Prejudice, The Blithedale Romance, or the Unfortunate Traveler? Where in the canonical envisioning of Literature has literary scholarship failed with the romance genre?

I pose these questions not to answer them but to suggest that the romance genre has a longstanding and very complicated relationship to literary formation and its role since its inception in early modern English culture. One aspect of this relationship is how much the romance genre is bound up with racial capitalism, something most of the theorists ignore. When we look at early modern English romances, regardless of form, there is a pervasive engagement with race-making, whether it is tied to nation, ethnicity, or colorism — and sometimes all three. When we examine contemporary, i.e., twentieth and twenty-first century romances, there is no surprise in discovering that not much has changed.[8]

“The Grecians, Who Have Been Our First Masters”

In his treatise on romance, de Scudery argues that any writer of romance should look to “the Grecians, who have been our first Masters” (de Scudery 1952/1674, 2). One of the most influential of these “Greek masters” was Heliodorus, whose romance novel Aethiopica was translated and circulated in early modern English literary culture. Written between 230 and 275 CE, Aethiopica depicts the trials and tribulations of Charikliea, the daughter and heir of the monarchs of Ethiopia, and her beloved Theagenes, whose lineage is traceable to Achilles. Heliodorus is most likely indebted to the biblical account of the Ethiopian monarch Candace, which is taken up by Greek historiographers such as Pliny the Elder who writes

They said that it [town of Meroe] is ruled by a woman, Candace, a name that has passed on through a succession of queens for many years …. At the present day there are reported to be forty-five other kings of Ethiopia. But the whole race was called Aetheria, and then Atlantia, and finally it took its name for Aethiops the son of Vulcan [universe vero gens Aetheria appellate est, deinde Atlantia, mox a Vulcani filio Aethiope]. (Pliny 1938/77 CE, 476–77)

The more famous Ethiopian princess who figures in Aethiopica and several adaptations of the romance novel is, of course, Andromeda.

For early modern romance theorists, Heliodorus’s Aethiopica exemplifies all the conventions Renaissance and early modern English readers would come to love in their romance texts — pirates and armed men, caves and ambushes, dreams and visions, burnings, poisonings, and sudden deaths, battles and the triumph of virtue, and of course, love. The romance’s depiction of virtues, such as chastity, honor, true love, and heroical figures, were consistently valorized as moral and ethical exempla in Renaissance and early modern English culture. As one Renaissance translator/editor observed: “not only many changes of fortune but also many images of virtue are here displayed. Among these is the description of Hydaspes, the king of Ethiopia, who is to be praised not only for his fortitude but also for his justice, clemency, and kindness towards those[9] whom he has subdued” (quoted in Doody 1996, 237). In fact, “both in morality and taste, this book [was considered] irreproachable” by translators of Heliodorus’s text (235). Not only was the Aethiopica translated from Greek into Latin, but it also appeared in Italian, French, German, and English versions. In England, the novel enjoyed extraordinary popularity and clearly left its mark on a reading populace hungry for both romances and novellas that went on well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The assimilation of Heliodorus’s text into English literary and cultural discourses was remarkable. The romance surfaced in translations, adaptations, and/or the appropriation of the romance’s protagonists, Charikliea and Theagenes. Aethiopica appears to have achieved its popularity with writers and readers for a number of reasons. First, the text’s humanist translators apparently held a high regard for Heliodorus’s “sophisticated way of exploiting the varied interpretive practices of readers of narrative fiction” (Mentz 2006, 48). The novel also provided “an alternative to chivalric romance and the Italian novella” (48). In effect, Steve Mentz asserts, the “opening scene models the diverse relations between the text and the diverse practices of its readers” (48). At this point this assertion needs to be understood as speculation but the popularity of Aethiopica suggests readers seemed to have found great delight in Heliodorus’s skillful handling of love, magic, and the fantastic, elements which enable the narrative to move metaphorically from the realm of the impossible and fantasy (romance) to the realm of the believable (realism or history).

Heliodorus’s romance sets into motion a generic and historical context that came to shape not only the way romance was conceptualized but also what constitutes legitimate plotlines within the romance genre. However, because the Aethiopica makes use “of the Manners, Customs, Religions, and Inclinations of People … to give a more true resemblance to things,” (de Scudery 1952/1674, 4), the text’s storyline proves to be a double-edged sword — it is simultaneously engaging and believable and ideologically disruptive of Renaissance and early modern English race-making. With the first English translation, Thomas Underdowne’s, readers and authors become immersed in a shifting discourse about colorism and its growing ties to modern racism.

The inclusion of the white-presenting Ethiopian as the raison d’être for a romance was an original touch in Heliodorus’s narrative. As a genre[10] or mode that conventionalizes the fantastic or the supernatural, as well as the idea of happily ever after, romance was a fertile template for grasping the instability of race-making based on skin color. What theorists fail to consider is the way Aethiopica functions as an ideological conundrum that Renaissance and early modern European racism cannot entirely resolve. This is not to say that Heliodorus himself was free of what may best be described as racial prejudice; one has to only look at his representation of the Egyptians to discern his biases. Even so, the novel’s aim seems not be the construction of an image of racial or ethnic negativity. Rather, the general purpose of the Aethiopica appears to be one of storytelling and the creative process of framing a readership. What the reader eventually discovers is that, had Charicles not insisted on arranging a marriage between Charikliea and his nephew, Charikliea’s “Ethiopian” identity would most likely have remained a well-kept secret. Even when her true identity is revealed, no one evinces distaste or horror at Charikliea’s Ethiopian-ness; for, as the novel makes clear, the Ethiopian people were held in high regard by the Greeks among whom Charikliea has lived.

At the novel’s conclusion, Charikliea and Theagenes are wed and duly proclaimed heirs to the Ethiopian throne. Neither Charikliea’s whiteness nor her parents’ Blackness register as liabilities to Theagenes or, it appears, to Heliodorus and his readers. However, within the racializing taxonomy shaping sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England’s view of the globe, such issues would prove problematic. Finally, and most importantly, what may have deeply intrigued and disconcerted English writers and readers of Aethiopica was the text’s imaginatively constructed ideological dilemma and subsequent resolution with respect to Charikliea, a white-presenting Ethiopian.

Charikliea’s Race

The appropriation and use of Heliodorus’s Aethiopica as an illustrative text of idealized human behavior during the early modern period in England (and Europe) is not without irony. Despite the fact that Ethiopia had adopted Christianity as its principal religion in the early fourth century, “white” Europe did not truly take notice of the kingdom until the[11] twelfth century. Moreover, while Ethiopia was a major economic player within the eastern Mediterranean region, it was the legend of Prester John that brought the African nation-state to Christian Europe’s attention. The myth of Prester John, coinciding as it did with the religious wars between Islam and Christian Western Europe (typically referred to as the “Crusades”), led to further contact between European and Ethiopian Christians, and fostered the dream of a unified Christendom aligned against the followers of Islam (Saracens). By the beginning of the fifteenth century, relations (political and economic) were well-established between the courts of European monarchs and Ethiopia and, as a consequence of embassies and mercantile interactions, the geography, culture, commercial value, and political and religious practices of the African state became fairly well known to Renaissance and early modern Europe.

One of the most widely circulated texts across Europe to offer a picture of Ethiopia was A Geographical Historie of Africa, Written in Arabicke and Italian by Iohn Leo a More, Borne in Granada, and Brought up in Barbarie (published in 1600), which offered its readers a detailed account of Ethiopia. Leo, more commonly referred to as Leo Africanus, has this to say about Ethiopia:

The Abassins have no great knowledge of Nilus by reason of the mountains which divide them from it; for which cause they call Abagni the father of rivers. Howbeit they say that upon Nilus do inhabit two great and populous nations; one of Jews towards the west, under the government of a mighty king; the other more southerly, consisting of amazons or war-like women; whereof we will speak more at large in our relation of Monomotapa. (Leo, 1969/1600, 13)

What stands out about Leo Africanus’s discussion of Ethiopia is that it is atypical in the brevity of his description of the physical appearance of Ethiopians: “The people are scorched with the heate of the sun, and they are black, and go naked: save only that some cover their privities with cloth of cotton or of silk” (395). The rest of Leo Africanus’s account about the Ethiopians focuses on their complicated status (to European eyes) as Christians. Ethiopian Christianity held to a different set of apostolic[12] tenets including circumcision, adult baptism, holding the Sabbath on Saturday, and adherence to Coptic theology rather than that which governed the Vatican. In fact, European Christians apparently were quite disturbed by “their [the Ethiopians’] alien Judaizing religious practices … [which] were unmistakably heretical” (Quint 1993, 236).

While the medieval Christian nation of Ethiopia remained an ideal to be exploited in the grand struggle against the “infidel” or pagan, the word that described the inhabitant of the Renaissance and early modern east African nation, Ethiopian, had lost its privileged Christian denotation. With increased contact between Europeans and Africans, especially sub-Saharan Africans, and the advent of the slave trade to provide labor for European settler colonies, the word Ethiopian joined Moor, Negro, and, African as part of a collapsible lexicon of racial demarcation. Furthermore, when Leo Africanus penned his Geographical Historie of Africa, this lexical conflation to mark Blackness virtually overrode all cultural and ethnic distinctions between and among African peoples, as well as differences between Eastern and Western Africa.

This lexical erasure, aided and abetted by a combination of ignorance and policy among European nations about the continent of Africa, isolated a single determinate — skin color — to racialize any person native to the continent. Ironically, despite its shared “Blackness” with “Negroes” and “Moors,” Ethiopia remained very much a part of Christian culture. The effect, not surprisingly, was a cultural and historical paradox within European geopolitics that acknowledged Ethiopia’s adherence to Christian doctrine even as it allowed for the people of Ethiopia to be racialized into Blackness (where Blackness signified alienness, inferiority, savagery or incivility, and evil) alongside other Africans. This paradigm was very much in play when, in 1569, Underdowne published the first English translation of Heliodorus’s Aethiopica as An Æthiopian Historie. So popular was the translation that after a number of printing runs, Underdowne decided to produce an edition “newly corrected and augmented with divers and sundry new additions” in 1587 (Underdowne 1967/1587, 107).

In his preface to the “gentle reader,” Underdowne writes that he reviewed the first translation and decided to “make it as perfect as” he “could, and to reform it from those so many horrible escapes” or errors that marred the first edition (4). He then goes on to “commend the reading[13] of” his work, saying “If I shall compare it with other of like argument, I thinke none commeth near it. Mort Darthure, Arthur of little Britaine,” and “Amadis of Gaule, etc, accompt violent murder, or murder for no cause, manhood: and fornication and all unlawfull lust, friendly love” (4). Heliodorus’s text, Underdowne contends, “punisheth the faultes of evil doers, and rewardeth the well livers. What a king is Hidaspes? What a pattern of a good prince? What happy success had he? Contrariewise, what a lewd woman was Arsace? What a pattern of evil behaviour? What an evil end had she?” (4–5). Underdowne’s commentary echoes sentiments articulated about Heliodorus’s text.

Renaissance translations of Aethiopica, for the most part, adhered to the idea that a translation is merely the rendering of a foreign language text into the vernacular, and Underdowne’s version was no different. When editors and translators of Heliodorus’s romance intruded their views, it was generally in the form of an elucidation of a particularly difficult word or in marginal commentary on the ethical or moral lesson to be learned from a specific passage or chapter (as Underdowne’s commentary makes clear). However, for English writers of fiction who later adapted portions of Aethiopica, or who “borrowed” from the work, the text’s central premise may have presented them with something of a different quandary: do you leave intact the romance’s representations of Ethiopia and Ethiopians, including the high regard with which they seem to be depicted by the Greek Heliodorus; or, do you “adapt” the image slightly so as not to completely denigrate Heliodorus’s text yet making clear that the translator’s culture holds a very different, and often ambivalent, view of Ethiopians? In other words, do you change Heliodorus’s narrative to suit the generic aims of your own literary creativity and the cultural expectations of your society?

What goes unremarked in the cultural discourse surrounding Aethopica’s inclusion into early modern English fiction is the problems posed by the white-presenting Ethiopian. Unlike the white-passing subject, the white-presenting subject may or may not engage in the performative process of color passing for the simple reason of ignorance. Inherent in racial capitalism is a campaign of anti-Blackness that requires individuals to see Blackness, not whiteness as a racializing trope. To identify, or mark, a person’s race, we are taught to look at biophysical externalities,[14] skin, facial features, and, as if it is a genetic marker, geographical space. For Charikliea, none of her physical attributes (skin color and facial features) set her apart from the Greeks. Her father is Greek, his skin color is “white,” and his socioeconomic status is enough to guarantee the perception and privilege of Charikliea’s whiteness. Even when the “truth” of her birth and thus “race” become known, her white-presenting subjectivity is not a problem in Heliodorus’s novel. However, the same cannot be said for adaptations and retellings of the romance of Charikliea and Theagenes.

In the next chapter, we will see what happens when early modern English racism meets Helidorus’s romance and the racecraft doesn’t entirely mesh. Focusing on two seventeenth-century English texts that retell significant elements of Aethiopica, Edward Fairfax’s Godfrey of Bulloigne (a translation of Torquato Tasso’s 1581 Gerusalem Liberata) and William Lisle’s The Fair Ethiopian (1631), I discuss the ways Renaissance and early modern English writers came to terms with the “white-presenting Ethiopian.” In different ways, each verse romance reveals its literary descent and its ideological distance from Aethiopica. My reading of Fairfax’s and Lisle’s poems argues that Heliodorus’s female protagonist, Charikliea, cannot function as an ambiguous signifier of race as she does in Aethiopica. England’s political economy, with its settler colonialist ideologies and its involvement in the enslavement of African peoples, cannot tolerate such ambiguity. English racism requires not just a hierarchy of colorism; it also requires that the hierarchy centers an anti-Blackness ideology. In other words, what the adaptations of Aethiopica do is rewrite the conventions of romance according to white supremacist logic.


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Race and Romance: Coloring the Past Copyright © 2022 by Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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