Much like the word Liberal, the word Romance has decayed from its original meaning to encompass something virtually anathemic to its originators.
The Romantic movement is the idealization of emotion, desire, and freedom from constraint. It places an extraordinary value on the world we live in, and most importantly our reactions to that world. This is embodied in a love of nature, a love of passion, a love of love. On the surface, this could really seem to indicate a commonality. After all, aren’t romance novels about love?
The problem is, romance novels aren’t at all about freedom from constraint, but a surrender to it. The most important literary figure of the romantic movement is the Byronic Hero. The Byronic Hero is a flawed, chaotic being, a sort of fatal force that compels people toward the reckless, the freeing. By his very definition the Byronic Hero is also doomed, unable to change or redeem himself from his most fundamental flaws. This is what makes him Romantic, the ability to be himself despite all surrounding impulse, good or bad. There can be no happily ever after for the Byronic Hero, and yet that’s what the modern romance novel demands of him.
The modern romance is about taming the wild heart. Pick up any romance book with some sort of warrior on the cover, and see how soon it asks ‘can she tame him’ or something of like mind. Next, go to any publisher of romantic books, and see how long you can go until they insist on a HEA (happily ever after) or at the very least a HFN (happy for now).
Of course language changes over time, and I don’t begrudge it. But all the same, there is a value in remembering where our words have come from. So next time you consider picking up a romance novel, perhaps consider also finding a good Romantic one.