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Reading historical popular romance in 21st-century Pakistan

Farooqui, J ORCID: 0000-0003-2152-4236 2022 , 'Reading historical popular romance in 21st-century Pakistan', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

This study examines a distinctive culture of reading Anglophone historical romance novels in Pakistan. The elite and upper-middle-class Pakistani women who are the focus of this research share a strong taste for one subgenre of popular historical romance fiction. Their reading preferences are anchored in drawing parallels between fictional representations of Regency-era England and the present-day reality of their lives. Focus-groups in four cities in Pakistan revealed that romance readers enjoy a sense of confident ownership of the subgenre and acknowledge that their reception of the textual settings is complicated by their specific context. Participants in the focus-groups explain their sense of connection to love stories set in early nineteenth-century England with reference to their historical, cultural, and educational background. The books are read in their original English, which, from the readers’ perspective, confirms the status of English as the language of the powerful elite in postcolonial Pakistan. This thesis is guided by the participants’ shared leisure-reading taste for Regency historical romance fiction, which is reinforced through book-sharing activity among friends, relatives, and neighbours. They claim that representations of Regency England mirror their contemporary social realities, and draw comparisons between match-making processes, courtship rituals, lavish tea parties, and displays of wealth in grand wedding functions. The thesis follows a mixed methodological approach comprising focus-group interviews, fieldwork, and close textual analysis to consider the means by which readers are introduced to popular romance fiction in Pakistan and the shared perspective that sustains the genre’s popularity for this peripheral and passionate readership. The project investigates where and how the readers access books of their choice, and explains why the detailed descriptions of dresses, food, and spaces in the texts exemplify good taste in a society where English language proficiency defines the upper-boundaries of social stratification. The dominant themes that emerged from the readers’ conversations were the self-conscious appropriation of Regency-era England, the deliberate dismissal of the scenes of sexual intimacy, and a persistent and nuanced attraction to the subgenre’s stock textual settings. I argue that the Regency historical subgenre has a middlebrow cultural status in the country because the readers embrace these novels as symbolic of superior social values and exclusive reading tastes. I utilize the collected responses of a non-Anglophone community of readers to create a close reading model for the analysis of the fictional setting in one specific subgenre of popular romance. My reader-centric model foregrounds the significance of romance readers as experts of the genre and approaches the texts through their lens. It reveals the connection of Pakistani readers to the element of setting in the novels, and suggests that taking seriously the views and practices of a distinct national readership, geographically and culturally distant from the original place of publication, offers a new method for close textual analysis of romance genre fiction. The specific details of the Regency-era setting that readers mentioned fall into three distinct categories, which I have named the social, architectural, and elemental categories, and form the three pillars of the reader-centric model. The social category covers the description of ubiquitous carriages and horses, the etiquette of the ton, details of Regency dress styles, and the characters of servants. The architectural grouping analyses constructed spaces in the texts, such as mansions, churches, and castles, as well as both domestic and public interior spaces, for instance parlours, ball rooms, bedchambers, and brothels. The elemental category focuses on elements of the natural setting, including descriptions of seasonal changes, moonlight, sunshine, haze, darkness, and winds. After constructing the model, I demonstrate its application with close readings of four Regency romance novels: The Duke and I by Julia Quinn, Impetuous Innocent by Stephanie Laurens, Until You by Judith McNaught, and The Pirate Prince by Gaelen Foley. Reading romance novels with a special focus on the fictional setting enables a distinctive production of imaginative space that influences and enacts the material and emotional reception of genre texts. This study the first study to explore the retail and reading communities of Anglophone romance novels in Pakistan. It evaluates the transnational reception of Anglophone romance genre to explore the extent to which books published for a Western popular market lose, or retain, their original coding upon reaching a former British colony in South Asia. The spaces in Regency romance texts are socially produced and project social relationships in the readers’ lived reality. For the Pakistani romance reading community, the words on the page hold a multitude of social and emotional meanings that do not translate readily outside the country.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Farooqui, J
Keywords: popular romance, readers, Pakistan, book history, postcolonial, reading communities
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