7 minute read

Romance: Elizabeth Buchan

‘Reader, I married him.’

In perhaps one of the most quoted (and misquoted) of fictional resolutions, Charlotte Brontë brings to a close a novel which an interested publisher had requested to be ‘wild, wonderful and thrilling’. It is the finale of an emotional and physical journey brought to a conclusion by that most prosaic of rites of passage: marriage. Yet it is one which we perceive (and romantic fiction still tends heavily to this view) as a logical consequence of the erotic and spiritual experiences of passionate love for another human being—feelings which, incidentally, are absolutely democratic, for love is universal and available to all. ‘For some of us, love will be the great creative triumph of our lives … and can lead the lover to transcending truths’, suggests Ethel Spector Person in Love and Fateful Encounters. In this respect, romantic fiction could be seen as offering a template for personal resolution and a proponent of social order.

This is certainly true of Jane and her Mr Rochester. More than a century and a half later, Jane Eyre (1847) is still wild and wonderful—‘one of the oddest novels ever written,’ argues Angela Carter, ‘a delirious romance replete with elements of pure fairy tale, given its extraordinary edge by the sheer emotional intelligence of the writer, the exceptional sophistication of her heart.’

A romance then, leavened by intelligence, intense emotion, psychological acuity, a passionate sense of natural justice, counterbalanced by Gothic thrills and a galloping narrative, it is a novel that educates the reader in the workings of the human heart and in the continuing battle between the individual's wishes and society's hypocritical and treacherous demands. Jane is abused by a so-called ‘aunt’, starved in the name of philanthropy at Lowood School, nearly led into the sin of bigamy by a man who professes to love her, and asked, in the name of religion, to sell herself in marriage to a zealot. Her struggle to find her place as a woman and a member of society is a profound and difficult one and nearly costs her her life and sanity. Despite the Gothic embellishments—the fire, the mad first Mrs Rochester, Jane's dramatic flight across the moors—the author has a shrewd grasp of social injustice. ‘Do you think’, cries Jane to Mr Rochester, ‘because I am poor, plain and little, I am souless and heartless?’ In one of the great affirmations in literature, she adds, ‘You think wrong—I have as much soul as you—and full as much heart.’

Jane Eyre is the quintessential romantic novel with enduring appeal. Only a quick glance at the best-seller lists is necessary to reveal that romantic fiction dominates the market with novels such as Catherine Cookson's (who disliked being categorized as romantic in the narrow sense), The Horse Whisperer (1995) by Nicholas Evans, Rosamunde Pilcher's phenomenally selling The Shell Seekers (1987) or even, Sebastian Faulks' Charlotte Gray (1998), whose heroine contrives to have herself parachuted undercover into France in order to find her shot-down lover—a selfless/selfish gesture which underlines how intimately linked private concerns are to great historic events.

Romantic fiction has had an interesting, protean history, and not a few rough patches. In its early evolving form, a romance—usually written in verse—was an adventure. It was meant to entertain (and still does) and took as its subject courtly love and chivalry, often incorporating myth and fantasy. Those characteristics clung to it, via the story-cycles of King Arthur, the lays of French courtly love, and the early German poets. Chaucer paid it the compliment of satire in his Tale of Sir Thopas (in The Canterbury Tales, around 1387) and, during the English renaissance, both Spenser and Philip Sidney elaborated on the pastoral romance, but, with the development of the novel, the focus shifted and narrowed. In his dictionary, Samuel Johnson defined romantic as ‘wild landscape’. This offers a clue to romantic fiction. For evident in the best novels is the wild landscape of mood, emotion, and psychology and the strange, and sometimes terrible, power of love—a heightened, altered consciousness which is not necessarily directed at another person but which always has the power to effect change.

Of course, authors pick and choose and borrow elements. Jane Austen gave us Pride and Prejudice (1813), arguably the best romantic comedy ever. Here we see the form developing but with an ironic style which is in direct contrast to the lively but preachy thrills of her contemporary, Maria Edgeworth. Boy meets girl, they encounter obstacles (in this case their own natures), overcome them and, thus, the way is open to the altar. But inserted into the bright and sparkling prose, there is a debate about the nature of love and marriage and also anger and terror. To be poor, unconnected, and female in this society was doom indeed. Later in the century Thomas Hardy observed much the same formula in Far From the Madding Crowd (1874)—the story of a young, headstrong girl and her relationship with three men. ‘Romance’, he tells us, taking leave of the chastened Bathsheba, ‘grows up between the interstices of reality.’ However, if we are to judge by the fatalistic, coincidence-strewn events and the haunting nostalgia and lyricism of his stories, he is not quite convinced.

The statement is better applied to F. M. Mayor's neglected classic, The Rector's Daughter (1924), a deceptively quiet novel of burning passion and renunciation. During the 1930s, in a dull East Anglian village, Mary, the rector's daughter, falls in love with Mr Herbert the curate. It goes wrong, and he marries another woman. But her love does not end and the one adulterous kiss she experiences irradiates the rest of her short life. This is an unforgettable and unerring portrait of duty observed at immense cost and of suffering.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, a natural justice—which can be interpreted as a kind of feminism—was creeping into the pages of these novels. The far better known Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier is tougher, showier, and heavier handed. A shy virgin marries an older man and he takes her to live in his beautiful house on the Cornish coast. Soon we are in dubious territory. Jealousy, sexual domination, cruelty, and murder, plus a gripping narrative with Gothic thrills, keep the reader glued to the page. But with whom does the power rest in the end? The answer lies in the overnight maturation of the shy virgin into the woman who chooses complicity for the sake of love. Quite properly, romantic fiction has its murky side.

‘Women’, wrote Stendhal, ‘are hungry for emotion, anywhere and at any time.’ During the twentieth century the market place fell over itself to feed this hunger. A huge industry for light, escapist fiction flourished, offering readers relief from the realities of living with Mr Right and the struggle to work the night shift. In Friday's Child (1944), the peerless Georgette Heyer gives us a template for stylish elegance, a lesson in the ridiculous, and a masterpiece of subversive satire on the literary form—not to mention the sheer pleasure of being made to laugh.

Today it is true that these novels, whose increasingly effective heroines can either dominate boardrooms or, à la Bridget Jones, battle to lose weight and find a boyfriend, are written and read by women. In this respect they provide a key to the female psyche. Here are dramatized the increasing conflict between biology and career, the desire for revenge on an unequal society, and, in direct counterpoint, the recognition of a female eroticism which responds to the freebooting, but ultimately tameable, male—the myth of Beauty and the Beast has not remained fresh without reason. In the age of equality, the phallic, plundering male is no longer acceptable and the challenge is to redefine those erotic truths within a rapidly changing context if only by presenting a contrast. Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) relies on a meticulously detailed pre-Second World War background of a sexual underworld whose entrapment was total. His story is of a female captivity, but it is also the one of the maiden immured in the cave, emerging with the help of love and self-knowledge—and the chivalric Chairman—into freedom.

As ever, the best writers are untrammelled by rules or formulas. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) envisages a transcendental love. In Not That Sort of Girl (1987), Mary Wesley slots a lifelong love-affair between Rose and Milo in between the social structures. Love, she seems to saying, is only possible when it is conducted illicitly. In contrast, Sue Gee's The Hours of the Night (1996), an intense and lyrical evocation of homosexual and heterosexual love set in a Welsh valley, mixes suffering and a non-sectarian spirituality to achieve reconciliation.

From the Gothic and swashbuckling, to the historical romance and the dramas of morality, feminism, and good old-fashioned man-meets-woman, this is a tradition that is hugely enjoyed. At its best it throws up the classic novels in our language: powerful, life-enhancing, revelatory, whose authors neither despise the power of the gripping narrative nor what Margaret Forster characterizes as ‘the spirit of mystery, adventure and excitement’.


Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction