Authors of Victorian short fiction often discussed the role of “romance” in their work. In doing so, they were not referring to writing love stories. Instead, their use of the term drew upon the medieval tradition of romance, typically a lengthy narrative of daring, courtly, and chivalric adventure, often involving fantastical or supernatural elements. Some accounts of the Arthurian legends, for example, were written as romances.
Nineteenth century romances tend to depict unexpectedly dramatic and emotionally compelling situations, though they often depict common people in everyday life rather than incorporating supernatural elements and high-placed characters. Take, for example, Mrs. Henry Whittle’s “Helen Fairfax,” a story of a young woman employed as governess by a Russian family. The story begins, “Surely the interest of the romance of fiction can never excel that of real life: seldom indeed does it approach it in depth of pathos, or in tenderness of sentiment.” The story goes on to recount the dramatic and heartrending adventures of this seemingly unexceptional and unpretentious governess. In other words, it finds romance in an everyday situation.
Though nineteenth century romances range from the shortest of narratives to several volumes in length, the term is especially prominent in short fiction. It provides the author a shorthand to signal to his or her reader that the story will involve unexpected turns, heightened action, and sensational adventure.