I know this is not appropriate for Halloween, but the subject of romance has been occupying my thoughts this past week as I’ve been reading a fascinating critical study on the topic in order to review it for an academic journal. The book tracks the changing face of romance novels over the course of the twentieth century in response to significant changes in relations between the sexes, but it points out how romance has perennially been associated with women. It’s mostly women who write it, women who read it and, nowadays, women who publish it, when it’s a question of mass market commercial houses like Harlequin. Despite the huge changes brought about by the wave of feminism that altered irrevocably the organization of Western society in the 70s and 80s, and sought to emancipate women from a sense of self-worth based entirely upon their desirability, there remains a strong link between female reading pleasure and romance literature.
This critical study (Romance and Readership in Twentieth-Century France by Diana Holmes, for those who’d like to know) does a fantastic job of bringing social history and literary history together, pointing out that romance has always been an important literary genre for women because romance was always such an important factor in the material quality of their lives. It mattered far more to a woman whom she married, for the condition and the circumstances of her entire life subsequently would be determined by it. Furthermore, in the days before women were allowed to turn their creative egos outward onto the world, romance was their only culturally sanctioned adventure. It was the place where they were allowed, briefly, to star center stage. But culture moves on and romance remains eternal. For this reason, we might also look towards the more psychoanalytic interpretations of romance’s hypnotic hold. Heroines may well want to attach themselves to strong, burly heroes in order to gain access (vicariously or otherwise) to excitement and adventure in the wider world, but the best romantic heroes are those who display an underlying tenderness and stability, offering the heroine ‘the kind of nurturing warmth that adult women mostly find themselves dispensing rather than receiving.’ Romantic love reassembles the best bits of mothers and fathers that adults are required to leave behind in childhood and unites them in one loving individual, thus continuing the supply of the comfort and the energizing agency so vital to our well being in the world.
So the point of romance is to bring man and woman to the place where they might safely explore together the thrill and the danger of the world. But in getting there the romance also offers a space in which to explore anxieties and fears about the possibility of this actually happening and the price that might be exacted for it. Old style romance may well have been propaganda for patriarchy, a way of telling women that if they conformed to a certain idealized model of nurturing compliance, they would be rewarded with love and material security, but romance across the ages has also been a space in which our intransigent quirks and differences might find themselves validated by another. The human soul is 75 percent visible to its owner. That recalcitrant, leftover 25 percent is like the individual box room that contains all the stuff that’s ugly, unusable or simply out of place. Literature loves this box room: it either lets it run amok to give us tragedy, or it teaches us to laugh at it by producing comedy, or it shows us how someone else might come to love it for us in the genre of romance. But literature also contains scores of novels that explore the inherent danger of what looks like an ideal solution. To have a loving spectator in our lives who approves of us is one of the great valorizing events of existence, but if we dare to outsource our sense of self-worth to them then we create a monster, an ideal image we must live up to that binds us to a way of being and to winning the approval of one cherished other. In one of Balzac’s novels the heroine, Eugénie Grandet looks at herself in the mirror and sees not only her reflection but, over her shoulder, that of the man she loves and cries out ‘I am not good enough for him!’ Ah, we abdicate part of our narcissism when we love deeply, and our sense of self is invaded by another at great cost to our peace of mind.
Doesn’t make the lure of romance any less enticing, however, that it contains its own risks and traps. It can also provide a space for idealizations that are equally necessary to us. Most romance dramatises the conflict between the desires of the individual and the demands of society and manages to wring some kind of provisional, workable compromise out of the encounter. Romance is the genre in which our need to be both free and intimate can be negotiated, and where we can explore our fascination and fear of difference, where we can consider the pressing ethical question about how we use other people and what we can give to them. I really liked a bit at the end of the study when contemporary novels were up for discussion and one author (Camille Laurens for the French-inclined) defended the right of young girls to dream at the window ‘for to imagine the ideal lover is a creative act, a means of transcending through imagination the contradictions of the human condition.’ We need romantic ideals, even if the best we can do with shambolic reality is to recreate a semblance of them, even if our love affairs are always an ongoing and sometimes painful negotiation between the possible real and the impossible perfect.
Whilst I was reading this book I made a rather intriguing discovery: it just so happened that I realized I had been reading a series of literary romances, only they had been written by men. So I’m going to do a little series now entitled Men in Love, looking at grand passions from the male point of view. Men are no less interested in romance than women, I think, but their emphasis appears to be different. Well, I’ll have more to say on that score another time. Enjoy trick or treating tonight, blogging friends, and share the candy with those you love!