Hearts and flowers and all things romantic tend to divide opinion radically when it comes to literature.
Mention the word, ‘romance,’ and many people think immediately of Mills and Boon. Of unlikely handsome heroes and beautiful, loving heroines who will find each other after various obstacles have been conveniently removed from their respective paths and all will end happily ever after.
Of course writing a Mills and Boon novel is, in many ways, like writing any novel: it’s hard work, difficult to get right, demanding – and not nearly as easy as it possibly appears to those people who often say to writers, oh I’ve always been meaning to write a novel – I’ve got such a good idea for one. In fact, it seems to me that writing a story with specified ingredients that control the action, characterisation and pace, would be the most difficult thing in the world and something I would fail at miserably.
In fact, I have never even tried to write romance. M and B claim to have a romance type for every reader and divide these into Modern, Historical, True Love, Medical and Desire with prescriptive definitions to follow for the aspiring M and B author.
And romance is an extraordinarily popular genre. It’s not just around Valentine’s Day that people turn to it for reading matter. Romance sells worldwide and incredibly, stratospherically well. There are an endless number of publishing companies that produce solely that with writers working prodigiously hard to produce books and series after series and doing pleasingly well out of it.
The nearest I have ever got to ‘romance’ has been commercial magazine short stories. Yet none of the stories of mine that were published for over 25 years, both in the UK and internationally in translation, could be defined accordingly.
Yes, they were written to fairly prescriptive requirements – a happy ending was paramount – but none of them were idealised. And that, for me, works as a useful distinction between romance and romantic.
The stories of mine that were published in Woman’s Realm, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Bella, Fiction Feast (and whatever the equivalent of these titles were in Australia, South Africa and the Scandinavian countries) certainly had one thing in common and that was love.
Family love, parental love, marital, romantic – the complexities, difficulties, obligations and challenges of love in a myriad of contexts.
And it’s the central core in the full length novels that I write now.
Of course, it is hard to think of many if any writers – great, famous, infamous, insignificant, forgotten, celebrated or overlooked – who does not have love as either the central premise or at least playing a minor role in a subtext somewhere among the pages.
It’s easy to find the famous examples.
Only drop the name Jane Austen and people immediately think of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. (with recollections possibly more based on the sight of a white shirt emerging from a quick dip in shallow water than from the prose itself, but whatever!)
There’s Emma in Austen’s eponymous novel who takes over 400 pages to discover that it’s the delectable Mr Knightley who has her heart (after her self-obsessed, fussy father, of course) and who could resist the man – handsome, rich, gracious and charming – who declares:
Tell me, then, have I no chance of ever succeeding? …I cannot make speeches, Emma. If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.
But it is Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne Eliot in Persuasion that I find one of the most perfect examples of the expression of love in Austen:
I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever…Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death …For you alone I think and plan.
This is the exquisite expression of love in the early 19th century that Austen captures so poetically. Yet with utter precision and truth.
One novel that I always go back to when seeking the opposite of literary romantic declarations, the inverse, you could say, of the traditions of Valentine’s Day and all the red hearts and inflated menu prices of February 14th, is Washington Square by Henry James.
For anyone who does not know the story – spoiler alert – our heroine, Catherine, does not get her man. In fact, the smooth, suave Morris Townsend proves to be – well, I won’t give it all away in case you don’t already know it. And it is a wonderful novel – more of a novella, in fact, at just 150 pages.
Henry James writes of Catherine’s emotions with such economy of language that nevertheless entirely captures her devastation at the loss of supposed love.
It was almost her last outbreak of passive grief; at least she never indulged in another that the world knew anything about. But this one was long and terrible; she flung herself on the sofa and gave herself up to her misery. She hardly knew what had happened ………..A long time passed, but Morris remained absent; the shadows gatherered; the evening settled down on the meagre elegance of the light, clear-coloured room; the fire went out.
If anyone knew how to write about love, of course, Shakespeare in his sonnets covers virtually every variation on it. Let alone in his plays.
But with 154 sonnets and 37 plays to his name, I will leave the task of considering his contribution to the literature of love to another – much longer – blog!