Mary Cadogan’s “And Then Their Hearts Stood Still” is, as she writes in her introduction, “an appreciative assessment of twentieth century romantic fiction from classics to comic-strips, from governess-gothic suspense fantasies to . . . single-sex love-stories; from women’s magazine exploits to Ruritanian and Regency romps, from teenage and schoolgirl passions to the second (or third and fourth) time-around affairs of older — though not necessarily wiser — women.” Whether Cadogan marvels at graphic tell-alls or samples the sweet romances of Mills and Boon, Harlequin and Silhouette, her 1994 book makes for a delicious Valentine’s Day treat.

In one way, though, “And Then Their Hearts Stood Still” raises a serious issue. While Cadogan notes that romance heroines change and evolve, reflecting contemporary social conditions and mores, she contends that the genre’s male heartthrobs always remain basically the same, “a fusion of romantic hero and rapist villain, a handsome, persuasive, dashing but dominating and obsessive rake, who could charm and chill his female victims in equal measure.”

Now that sounds more than a little troubling — and is it still true? Jayne Anne Krentz — a.k.a. the best-selling Amanda Quick, among several other pennames — persuasively argued in her influential 1992 study, “Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women,” that an escapist romantic fantasy, intended largely for a female audience, absolutely requires a powerful and even threatening alpha male. Why? Because a caring, politically correct omega male simply doesn’t provide enough challenge for a strong woman. Only through interaction with someone as exceptional as herself can the heroine prove her own mettle and worth. As Cadogan says of Georgette Heyer’s stormy (and banter-filled) historical love stories, “initial misunderstanding and mutual antagonism” are necessary to test the main characters, keep the plot moving along, and prepare for the sunshine of “antipathy transformed into appreciation and resentment into rapture.”

Forceful, Byronic traits certainly contribute to the bad-boy attractiveness of Lovelace, Darcy, Rochester, Heathcliff, Rhett Butler and Maxim de Winter. Dark and brooding, often well acquainted with sin and crime, sometimes cruel but always magnetically sexy, they appear in, respectively, Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa,” Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” and Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”— in short, the touchstones of romantic fiction.


(St. Martin's Griffin)

(Avon)

Cadogan’s range is exuberantly wide. She writes about the fiction of authors known mainly from the dustier backrooms of secondhand bookshops — Ruby M. Ayres, Ethel M. Dell, Berta Ruck — but also about much-loved blockbusters from the 1970s and 80s: Raj epics like M.M. Kaye’s “The Far Pavilions” and Valerie Fitzgerald’s “Zemindar,” multigenerational sagas of love and loss such as Rosamunde Pilcher’s “The Shell Seekers” and Colleen McCullough’s “The Thorn Birds,” Judith Krantz’s glitzy “Scruples” and the early work of prolific Danielle Steel. She even touches on Helen Dore Boylston’s immortal “Sue Barton: Student Nurse,” analyzes the importance of the ecstatic, final-page kiss in Barbara Cartland’s novels, and reflects on how often a sudden disability in a book’s hero, often blindness, undercuts class differences or male arrogance to smooth the way to a happy ending.

Still, today’s blasé, unshockable readers may be surprised at how transgressive early 20th-century popular fiction could be. Not all the books bore titles like “Only a Laundry Girl” or featured noble suffragettes. For instance, Cadogan lingers over Elinor Glyn’s notorious “Three Weeks,” in which an older woman educates a younger man in the protocols of the bedchamber, describes in detail Margaret Kennedy’s “The Constant Nymph,” about the sexual attraction between a 14-year-old girl and a young composer, and gently mocks Thomas Hardy’s “The Well-Beloved,” in which the protagonist falls in love, at 20-year intervals, with an unattainable beauty, her look-alike daughter and finally the daughter’s daughter.

As those examples hint, Cadogan regularly mixes affectionate appreciation with a dry, puckish humor:

“The generally accepted way for a working girl to embark upon a romantic but respectable relationship with a man from the more favoured classes was to get herself run over by his bicycle, carriage or motor-car. He would then lug her insensible but lovely form to the nearest house and, in relief at her revival from the point of death, fall head-over-heels in love with her.”

Cadogan also quotes deliciously, my favorite example being the title-page description from a True Confessions-like story about the lurid aftermath of a rash infatuation: “It was her wedding night . . . she had married the man of her dreams . . . too late, she found she was a BRIDE FOR SALE.’ ”

Radclyffe Hall’s pioneering 1928 novel, “The Well of Loneliness,” naturally forms the centerpiece of the chapter on lesbian romances. Cadogan writes that despite a forgivable preachiness, the book “remains an addictively gripping saga of love, frustration and limited fulfillment, and possibly still the greatest of all single-sex romance stories.” It concludes with an anguished prayer by the protagonist, a cri de coeur only now starting to be honored:

“ ‘God,’ she gasped, ‘. . . rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!’ ”

After you’ve enjoyed “And Then Their Hearts Stood Still,” consider looking for Mary Cadogan’s related study — co-written with Patricia Craig — of the fiction published in English girls’ magazines from 1839 to 1985. Using this subgenre’s favorite expression for a classmate who is utterly reliable and simply the best, the book is wonderfully, rippingly titled, “You’re a Brick, Angela!”

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.

AND THEN THEIR HEARTS STOOD STILL
An Exuberant Look at Romantic Fiction Past and Present

By Mary Cadogan

Macmillan.