Saturday, 12 October 2013

Museum by night

There was an  anxious cluster of people outside the Victoria and Albert Museum.  They were reading the hoardings that had appeared.  "NEW RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT" it proclaimed, and a second line added, "AT PRIME CULTURAL HERITAGE LOCATION."

I could hear what the people were saying, although their voices rarely rose above a quiet mutter.  "They're selling everything off."  "I never thought we'd lose the V&A."  "It's such a shame - I'll miss it."  But although passers-by really thought that the government had decided to convert one of London's great museum into luxury housing, none of those I heard suggested a protest.  They minded, they were upset, but not one of them even suggested wearing a badge or writing a letter to an MP.  This was what the government was doing and they would have to put up with it.

I'd have been there with a banner and loud-hailer if I thought the government was selling off the V&A to property developers.  I've loved this museum since, as a London child, I wandered through its galleries and got lost amidst its marvels.  There used to be a reproduction of the Bayeaux Tapestry on rollers so that you could view it in stages.  I lost count of the number of times my brother and I surveyed it, looking for the figure we believed was Harold with the arrow in his eye.  The huge and detailed Raphael cartoons were another attraction and for some reason I was fascinated by the sculpture of the serpents entangling Laocoon and his sons.  There were even visits to the cast gallery, if I could persuade an adult to take me past the sign which banned unaccompanied children under 15.  I don't know if this was to project the fragile casts or to keep us from the replica of Michaelangelo's David with which I was obsessed, though more for the expression of his face than for his nudity.  Fortunately I rarely had any problem in finding a grown-up to escort me past the museum guards.  If only for the strength of my memories, I would fight to preserve the V&A for future generations of children.

But I knew that, for now at least, the V&A is safe from property developers.  I was on my way to see the Elmgreen and Dragset installation and, after a moment's shock, came to the conclusion that the hoardings were part of the game they were playing with visitors.  

It was Friday evening.  I've never been to a late evening opening at the V&A before and the feel of the museum is different.  As the skies darken outside, the light in the museum changes.  Visitors seem more hushed and slightly tentative, as though they fear they're trespassing.  And because some of the galleries were closed, I had to find new routes and, as usual with so large a museum, I found myself in unfamiliar rooms.  I couldn't work out if I'd seen the Turners before and hurried past but on Friday evening they were luminous and compelling.  I've only just begun to appreciate Turner after the hackneyed reproductions of The Fighting Temeraire that appeared on so many biscuit tins in my childhood.  But after spending time in the small room of the National Gallery where two Turners are hung with two paintings by Claude, I have gradually come to realise, some years after falling for Claude, that I've learned to like Turner as well.

I wanted to linger by the Turners but I had come to the V&A to see the Elmgreen and Dragset installation, called Tomorrow.  I loved the idea of the installation: five galleries of the V&A have been turned into the apartment of a rich and unsuccessful architect which he has been compelled to sell but has not yet left.  Visitors are encouraged to snoop on the invisible inhabitant while the museum guards, dressed as butlers and maids, stand about and respond to queries with deferential courtesy.

At first I thought the installation was great.  My sense of being an intruder matched my sense of strangeness at being in the museum at night.  There weren't many other visitors just then, and I wondered if some of them were part of the installation.  Nervously I picked up items, stroked them, read postcards and bills, leafed through newspapers (lots of stories of the London riots) and perched on sofas and chairs.  There were a few moments which added to my uneasiness - but not many and, for my taste, not enough.  In the end I wasn't sufficiently engaged with the setting nor with the film script which was provided to accompany it.  I was left as cold as I was by Elmgreen and Dragset's consciously kitsch sculpture on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.  It's the only fourth plinth sculpture that I've actually disliked.  

I've been trying to work out why I was so unengaged by the installation.  I know other visitors have liked it.  There were elements I enjoyed: the unwashed coffee cups, the unmade bed, the sound of the shower, the fireplace in the living room and the vultures.  But in the end I was uninterested in the people that the room conjured up - apart from the servants.  The servants were great and I'd like to have known more about them.  I leafed through the postcards and photograph album and worked out, from the pictures, that I was supposed to understand that the rich inhabitant of the flat was gay and liked looking at attractive young men - but why was this presented as a puzzle?  It seemed to be presenting the character's sexuality as a not-very-hidden secret, which would have made some sense forty or fifty years ago but is a little strange now.  I looked at the architecture posters and models and wondered what point was being made, then found that I didn't much care.  The installation seemed to be about wealth and people to whom wealth came easily.  In real life I feel much more uneasy in such a world than I did in the installation.  I left unmoved.

But then I found myself among the drawings in the V&A's collection, and I was riveted.  Here there were people and scenes I could care about.  There was clear craft as well as art, and surprising experimentation.  A startling ink drawing which Constable made in old age caught my attention, and I looked with care at some of the tiny oil sketches he had made too.  I particularly loved those of the seashore.  I fell into conversation with people who had taken a different route to the museum and been distracted by the small Constables on their way to the installation.  They were more knowledgeable than me and could trace the influence Constable had on twentieth century artists.   I couldn't stay long enough but I want to get back to see the Turners and Constables again.  It seems that my views of Constable have been unfairly limited by exposure to frequent reproductions of his paintings of Salisbury Cathedral and the Hay Wain.

So it wasn't the temporary installation that awoke my sense of wonder but the familiar seen anew.  I left the V&A determined to return again soon - and on a Friday evening if I can.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Back to the blood tubs: the amazing spectacle of Charlie Peace

When I was a child, I was fascinated by a particular kind of penny-in-the-slot machine - the sort you found in the arcade at the end of the pier, if the pier's attractions were particularly run down.  

In those days pennies were really big copper coins - bigger than any coin in use today.  If you held them tightly in your hand and your hand sweated, you would acquire a green stain on your palm.

The coins were old. too.  Particularly sought after were "bun pennies" with their image of the young Queen Victoria, with her hair in a bun - though it was sometimes hard to make her out on the battered and faded coins.  But those were coins that had been shiny new in Charlie Peace's era, though he was ambitious for more wealth than a mere penny represented.

I don't know if the penny-in-the-slot machines I loved were around in Charlie Peace's lifetime but I suspect some, at least, represented the moment of his death.  Public executions might have ended in Britain, and parents no longer gave copies of the Newgate Calendar to their children as a dreadful warning, but end-of-the-pier machines showed, as well as haunted houses and "what the butler saw," a variety of executions, including the French guillotine and the British "long drop."  While they were bleakly macabre, they also offered the final episode of an unknown story - something to spark the imagination.

Early in Michael Eaton's new play about the Victorian burglar, murderer and folk-hero Charlie Peace, there is just such a tableau.  It's part of an entertainment that harks back to Victorian and pre-Victorian popular culture.  It doesn't belong with the sedate cup-and-saucer dramas intended for upper-middle-class audiences " or the slightly later problem play which barely questioned middle-class morality.  This is part music-hall entertainment, with its master of ceremonies, music and spectacle, and part the kind of melodrama that might have stemmed from one of the "penny gaffs" or "blood tubs" that came into being when "legitimate theatre" was restricted to England's few patent houses.  There are also elements of broadside ballads in some of the songs while either side of the set are huge playbills in the Victorian mode.

The great achievement of the play and its excellent cast is that it demonstrates that this kind of spectacle, so often sneered at by theatrical critics, still works for an audience, and works exceptionally well.  While most performances in this mode are either pantomimes, which have to work for a family audience, or slightly superior mockeries of the genre, Charlie Peace engages with the mode and celebrates it.  At the time, I was too caught up in the plot to analyse my response but I recall laughing, gasping, sitting on the edge of my seat and admiring the craft and dexterity of the actors.  And while the play is not about careful characterization or anguished doubt, Peter Duncan was entirely credible as the kind of friendly villain who could be charming, anguished, angry or ingratiating depending on the company in which he found himself.

There is something serious going on too.  The play led me, at any rate, to consider why I find law-breakers like Charlie so engaging and why apparent villains have such a hold on the English popular imagination.  Plainly class is an element but it's not just that.  I wonder if Charlie Peace has a similar hold over the imagination of people who always expect the law to protect their own interests. 

But you need to see the play for yourself.  It's at Nottingham Playhouse until 19th October and then it moves to the Belgrade Theatre at Coventry.   I don't know if it's touring any more widely but if I was running a theatre capable of staging it, I'd try to get this play with this cast if at all possible.  Get to see it if you can. 

I would like to praise the director but unfortunately I mislaid my programme - or perhaps Charlie snitched it (it's the sort of thing he might have done) so I don't know who the director is.  The sets, by graphic artist Eddie Campbell, are marvellous and the stage technicians have evidently worked hard, to very good effect.   


Sunday, 18 November 2012

Surround sound

First there was one bell.  It wasn't the tone of a church bell nor a small tinkling sound - and it didn't come from the usual chords of the musical stave.  It came from somewhere behind me, compelling and mysterious.  

After a while another bell joined it.  Then I saw the musicians, entering the theatre from different points but creating working together to create a soundscape in which they and the audience existed together.  It was as though we entered another form of space, a place in which sound was chief among the senses.

At last the four musicians stood together on the stage, playing their bells - Ghanaian instruments in music which came, I think, from the Siwe people.  By this time I was in the place that they had created.  And this was just the beginning of the concert by ensemblebash at Nottingham's Lakeside arts centre.

I first encountered ensemblebash a couple of years ago, at Ignite, an exceptional free festival in Covent Garden's Royal Opera House.  They were performing for free, sometimes joined by pianist Joanna MacGregor.  If I'd been asked in advance, I wouldn't have thought a percussion quartet would be much to my taste.  But it was free and gave me chance for a sit-down so I settled down with an audience which ranged from small children to regular opera-goers and prepared to give ensemblebash a courteous hearing.  I was soon entranced and excited - and so, I think, was everyone else who had crowded in to listen.  This was performance with wit, intensity and magic - like nothing I had heard before.  So when I saw that ensemblebash were finally visiting the East Midlands I had to be there.

I knew some of the music from ensemblebash's recent album, A Doll's House.  But listening to a CD on fairly unsophisticated equipment is quite different from hearing pieces by David Bedford and Howard Skempton in a theatre - not to mention the added dimension of seeing them performed.  With percussion the visual element is a particularly important extra dimension, whether it comes from watching four players hovering over a single marimba, the blowing of a conch shell or the way music can be made from a donkey's jaw-bone.  The absurd and hilarious dinner-party of Stephen Montague's Chew Chow Chatterbox, in which the musicians use voice, chopsticks, bowls, wine glasses and bottles, couldn't work half as well in a recording as on stage since the players enact the roles of host and dinner guests.

I loved the varied programme which ranged from Peter Garland's delicate variations in a single chord in Apple Blossom to an arrangement of free-form jazz evolved from Max Roach's improvisation with other drummers.  As I lived in the world of sound, I found my emotions shifting from moment to moment in response to the music.  At times it even seemed that I could see the sound hovering like a cloud above the players as they made the air vibrate.

The evening ended with an exuberant performance of John Cage's Third Construction, using a range of found (but carefully-tuned) instruments.  And I bought two more ensemblebash CDs.  The CDs may not match up to the wonders of performance but they have introduced me to still more percussion music and have already been a source of considerable pleasure and well worth the money I spent.  The CDs will have to suffice until ensemblebash return to the East Midlands.  I hope they come back soon.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The satyr dances

I don't feel comfortable in Piccadilly.  It's the province of the rich, who can afford its casual extravagances.  Suited and cloaked doormen - they are always men - stand at the entrances of buildings.  I would be reluctant to risk their contempt.  In Piccadilly, Fortnum and Mason's is mid-range while Pret-a-Manger is dangerously down-market.

It's partly my uneasiness with Piccadilly that keeps me away from the Royal Academy exhibitions, and partly the high cost of admission.  It's expensive even with an Art Fund card.  But when I saw the picture of the dancing satyr, I knew I had to brave Piccadilly, pay the admission price and see the exhibition in which he appeared.  It's called "Bronze" and bronze is the linking motif between all the exhibits.  It's about the material and its qualities rather than a period of history or changes in ideas.  Its focus is what stays the same.

 It's not just the material that is a constant in the exhibition.  There was also a repeated response to it from numerous visitors throughout the exhibition.  The gasps of awed admiration began as visitors opened the door to the exhibition and saw the first piece: the dancing satyr, in a room by himself.

The satyr is a recent discovery, found by fishermen in the sea off Sicily only fifteen years ago.  He's slightly larger than life-size and displayed so that viewers have to look up to him.  After his long immersion in salt-water, he's acquired a greenish patina and a slight roughness.  This only seems to aid the satyr's fluid movement.  It's as though his ecstatic dance continued without pause, whether he moved through air or water.  There's a smoothness about the curve of the limbs and body that made me want to reach out and touch him - but the flung-back head and the blank eyes speak of possession and tell the watcher to keep a distance.

So awe was there at the beginning and it continued.  There are massive statues: of saints, statesmen and peasants.  There is even Rodin's Age of Bronze which conveys uses the material to convey masculinity - or perhaps masculinity to convey the material.  There are tiny works.  Perhaps the most disturbing are the tiny copulating grasshoppers, whose image was cast by encasing them in molten metal.  There are gods and domestic objects.  Men ride horses, and panthers, battle monsters,  suffer agonies of torture or gaze sternly on the world.

Women are less in evidence.  There are goddesses and rulers; a stern and prickly Catherine de Medici, showing off the fashion of the day, is particularly memorable.  There are grief-stricken madonnas and a wonderful South Indian sculpture of the infant Krishna with his wet-nurse Mukhara.  And there are objects of desire - often small pieces presumably intended for private collectors.  Venus (naked, of course) removes a thorn from her foot, a satyr uncovers a sleeping nymph and, in another piece, a satyr and nymph are engaged in enthusiastic sexual intimacy.  It's a mark of the exhibition's focus on the craft of casting that my first thought on seeing this explicit and detailed piece was awe at the skill involved in creating so fragile a scenario in bronze.  Most of the workers in bronze have traditionally been men, so far as we can tell, but two twentieth-century pieces by women sculptors had a considerable impact: a large Louise Bourgeois spider mounted high on the wall and a curved abstract piece by Barbara Hepworth, which seemed to echo the sea evoked in the dancing satyr.

It's impossible to go into detail about all that is wonderful in an exhibition so far-ranging.  The Royal Academy has borrowed pieces from many parts of the world, inviting viewers to make comparisons across cultures and time.  I found myself particularly struck by a small chariot from Denmark made of bronze and gold in the 14th century B.C.  No-one knows its purpose or why the horse is placed within the chariot rather than pulling it along.  It is tiny, delicate and magical in its incomprehensibility - and the gilding on the circle which may be a sun, a shield or a great wheel is a thing of wonder.  And, as the films shown in the exhibition display, it was probably made by one of the two main methods still in use all over the world today.

Coming away from this exhibition, I knew it had changed something in the way in which I saw the world.  It had encouraged me to make comparisons and connections across cultures.  It had helped me look at art through the materials it uses rather than just the period in which it was made.  And it showed me the flexibility of that material in conveying a huge range of emotions and evoking numerous responses.  I wondered if there was any emotion it could not show or evoke.  Then I realised what was missing from that range which included desire, ecstasy, pride, fear, admiration and awe.  A word trickled into my mind and reminded me that one emotion and response had been absence.  Maybe bronze is for every emotion, every response - except love.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

After, and before

A colleague showed us a video from youtube.  A newly-married couple came out of a church.  The camera panned along the street.  There was a brief glimpse of a young girl looking out of a window, curious to see what was happening.  She could have been any girl of 12 or 13, watching the adult world and anticipating her own future.    This young girl's life is well-documented and her diary is translated into numerous languages.  Her name was Anne Frank.  She wasn't quite sixteen years old when she died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

For most of the photographs of August Sander, now on display at Leicester's New Walk Museum, as part of a touring exhibition sponsored by the Art Fund, viewers can know little of how people began or ended.  Sander's initial aim was to present a study of German life, using individuals to represent different types within German society.  But however determined Sander's categorisation, the people he photographed resist being mere types.  Some perform their occupations, often surprisingly.  A farmer in the 1920s still ploughs with oxen  Another, in 1952, sows seed by hand, scattering it from a basket.  Others pose with the implements of their trade.  Almost all gaze straight into the camera, leaving the viewer with no more information that the brief labels provide.  The more I look, the more I understand the impossibility of reading a whole human being from a face.

I never have the sense that Sander's photography mocks or diminishes its subjects.  I always see them as complex, interesting human beings.  If I wish, I can build stories.  I have to set those stories in the time through which they lived.  Almost all of them were confronted by the dilemmas and persecutions of Nazism.  But when I start wondering "How did that farm-worker vote?" or "What did that woman do when the Nazis came to power?" I can't answer the questions I want to ask.  People's actions don't always harmonize with their faces.  An SS officer in one of the photos of Nazis looks benevolent and slightly unsure of himself.  His uniform does not.

I can and do make guesses.  Some of the circus people in the photo above are plainly not Aryans.  I hope they got away.  I would like to imagine a happy future for the gypsies, the children with severe disabilities, those who are simply labelled "persecuted people" or "political prisoners."  But I know most didn't get away.  The exhibition ends with a portrait of the death mask of Sander's son Erich, who died towards the end of his ten-year jail sentence.  Escapes are temporary.  None of us ever walks out of history or politics, however hard we try.  I wonder what future generations will think, if they ever look back on photographs, film and videos of the time in which we live.

August Sander didn't lead the life that was mapped out for him at childhood.  He was supposed to be a miner.  One day, working at the mine, he helped a visiting photographer and looked through the lens of a camera.  He never forgot what he saw - the sky, the movement of clouds.  That moment gave birth to one of the great photographers of the twentieth century.  He was part of his time but the records he made speak to the future.

I have paid one visit to the August Sander exhibition so far.  I hope to visit at least once a week while the exhibition is in Leicester.  I want to look more closely at many of the portraits.  I would like to commit them to memory, which is another way of letting the people of the past live on.  I also want to spend more time on Sander's pictures of human hands and of landscapes.

But I can't spend too long in the gallery with Sander's pictures.  There's too much humanity there, real people set to face a dreadful future.  

I think if I stayed too long, I would cry.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

An opening

Cynic though I sometimes am, I warmed to the Olympics opening ceremony.   Yes, I know it cost a lot and I know the performers were volunteers and that there are numerous problems with corporate sponsors and the treatment of dissent.  I might not have watched the ceremony had my daughter not been one of the volunteers but, once I'd got used to the style, I found a great deal to love.

It's easy to be critical of the account of history, especially since there was so little time and so much was going on.  I glimpsed the suffragettes but only learned later that the Jarrow marchers were also present.  Perhaps the Chartists were somewhere around though I don't think the Tolpuddle martyrs or the Diggers were included.  They didn't represent the the Commonwealth either - perhaps the execution of Charles I was judged unsuitable for all sorts of reasons - and Britain's uncomfortable colonial history was omitted.  But Blake's "Jerusalem" made a good starting point and the complexity of the Industrial Revolution - with its excitement, achievement and damage - was stupendous.  I'm still thinking about the implications of conflating Shakespeare's Caliban with Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  Perhaps because it appeals so strongly to my imagination, it's made a slight adjustment to my views of the 19th century.

I expect most viewers took what they wanted from the ceremony.  Some of my friends lauded J.K. Rowling. There was great enthusiasm for James Bond, the Queen and the corgis.  Mr Bean had even more fans than Simon Rattle.  I was thrilled to see a huge CND symbol in the arena, even though I understand that it was there as part of the history of Britain in the late twentieth ceremony.  But a huge number of people were excited when the letters "NHS" appeared.  Most people in Britain still agree that being able to go to the doctor and be treated in hospital when necessary without worrying about money is one of the great achievements of Britain's welfare state.  As the story of the health service was entangled with children's books, it wasn't surprising that villains from children's literature appeared to attack children in hospital nor that nurses and a number of Mary Poppinses finally defeated Lord Voldemort.

But perhaps the best thing about the opening ceremony was that it showed so many people what they love about Britain: its countryside, its industrial achievement; its literature;  its music; and above all the huge mixture of ordinary people who mostly live happily together, enjoy life and like one another.  It was an optimistic and hopeful picture of life here today, appropriate for the short period in which, in theory, there should be an Olympic peace.  I liked the way the peacemakers handed the Olympic flag to representatives of the armed forces, because, if we're ever to build peace, we'd be wise to involve armies in the movement away from violence.  

The parade of the athletes, many grinning broadly as they entered the stadium, fitted well with the show as a whole.  I know it's not always like this but I'd like to think of the Olympics as somewhere in which competitors form friendships across national boundaries and despite suspicion and conflict.  I'm also happy to celebrate the huge variety of people who take part in sports for love of it and who often aren't very well-known.  Since I joined a fencing club, I've learned about the amount of dedication shown by people in "minority" sports.  At my fencing club the coaches are unpaid (but qualified) volunteers and members of the committee donate their skills in such roles as web-designer, accountant, social secretary and armourer so that the club can keep its fees down and welcome members of the basis of interest.  It's given me a great respect for people involved in sport.

It seems that Danny Boyle's vision is one of peace, freedom and equality - one in which the contributions of all people are valued.  It's a fantasy, of course, and I see the strength of the objections.  People say it all costs too much in an age of austerity,  that it's a bit unreal and that sport isn't for everyone.  People quote Juvenal and talk about "bread and circuses" - some of them go on to ask "where's the bread?"  I can see their point.  They see sport and the arts as an extravagance when we need to to campaign once more: for the health service, for workers' rights, for food for the hungry, for an end to torture and oppression, for the welfare state, for equality, for freedom. I want all those things but I want circuses as well.  

Juvenal saw bread and circuses as something that distracted the people from Rome's serious political purposes.  He didn't like the people much.  For him they were the enemy of political decency - and he didn't reckon he belonged among them.  But I am happy to be one of "the people."  For me there's a different way of expressing what I want.  Just over a hundred years ago a poem declared that a life devoted to work and survival was not enough.  Two lines have often been repeated:

 Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
 Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

 I want a world in which people experience delight as well as having enough to eat.  I don't think art and sport necessarily turn us into passive consumers of whatever the government says.  They can bring people together and widen their knowledge and understanding of the world.  They can set the imagination and intelligence alight, and bring people who would not normally encounter one another the joy of engaging in a shared activity.  They can give us some idea of how much better the world might be, even though they leave us with the task of achieving it.  

Photo by Nick Webb, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A touch of class

I haven't read Shades of Grey.  Having seen numerous blogs and articles about the book, I used Amazon's "look inside" feature to get some idea about it - and I peeked inside a copy in Waterstone's.  At my age, I don't need to worry what other people think of me, and I expect fellow travellers assume I'm reading erotica when they see me with my kobo.  (At the moment I have James Joyce's Ulysses open and Zola's L'Argent - both pretty dodgy books in their way and immensely enjoyable.)

However the fuss about Shades of Grey has led me to think about the kind of book it is.  It's fanfic, obviously - and because it's Twilight fanfic it's not much to my taste.  It's porn so not rooted in realism or good writing.  And it's also romance with all the usual baggage that entails.  Its heroine is young, innocent and adoring while the hero is enormously rich, terrifically sexy, and enormously damaged.  Her role is to rescue and adore him.  His role is to give her extravagant presents, including - and this is where I'm almost hooked - a valuable first edition.

Romance is an odd genre with a curious descent.  Part of it is a male genre - it comes from the seduction narratives of courtly romance.  In these the woman are praised for their exceptional beauty and virtue.  There are traces of this in Elizabethan sonnet sequences.  Shakepseare's sonnets reverse some of the usual conventions; the fair youth is praised for beauty and virtue while the dark lady is seen as both desirable and dangerous.  This enables Shakespeare to emphasise another aspect of this kind of romance: the suffering endured by the male lover. 

Romance also has roots in the spiritual journals often kept by Puritans.  This may sound unlikely but, because they were concerned with the soul and the interior life, spiritual journals naturally recorded emotions.  Samuel Richardson's 18th-century novel Pamela, which is clearly a fore-runner of today's romantic novels, comes out of that tradition, with its focus on the struggles of a very young maidservant to retain her virtue as he male employer makes repeated attempts to seduce and rape her.  In the end her virtue and beauty win him over.  Richardson was an influence on Jane Austen, who turned his third novel, Sir Charles Grandison, into a play, and I think it likely that the plots of his novels, if not the novels themselves, influenced Charlotte and Anne Bronte.

It's also common to find the roots of contemporary romantic fiction in fairy tales, particularly those written or adapted by Perrault, such as "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty".  But although the structure of these stories is quite like contemporary romantic fiction, the stories themselves lack two aspects that are key to romance as written today.  They don't have an interior narrative and the women tend to be curiously passive in terms of the romance plot.  The heroines marry princes because that is expected of them and not because they love or desire princes.  Fairy stories of this era are largely concerned with actions and appearances.  The feelings of the character are irrelevant.

Contemporary romance has quite a lot going for it.  It values women's feelings and says that their desires are important.  It also suggests that the choice of a partner is both difficult and important.  However, there are also shortcomings to the form.  It tends to treat the achievement of a partnership or marriage as the culmination of women's lives, though sometimes there is a brief epilogue, usually involving pregnancy or the birth of a child.  Plainly this ignores most of women's lives and relationships.

Heterosexual romantic fiction (the vast majority) has another worrying aspect.  The hero is typically richer, more powerful, older and taller than the heroine - and usually of a higher social class.  The attraction of the heroine is almost always based on a combination of innocence (not necessarily virginity but relative inexperience), modesty (she doesn't realise how attractive she is) and adoration of the hero despite his flaws.  But while the heroine looks up to the hero, she is often also a mother-substitute who tends to some hidden anguish or moral flaw - she has to heal him while she adores him.  The heroine is permitted some liveliness of speech - today she is often characterised as "feisty" - and she is allowed a character and a career.  But the only model for romance that women are offered involved both admiring and tending to the hero.

There's nothing wrong with admiring some aspects of a partner.  Indeed, it's pretty normal given that adults prefer partners of whom they think well.  And there's certainly nothing wrong with caring for a partner who is in need of care.  But there's something wrong with the kind of transaction romance offers if on one side the man provides money and power while the woman offers adoration and nurturing.  It's not an equal relationship - and surely all of us, men and women, want more than that, even in our fantasies.

It was reasonable for Elizabeth Bennett to fall in love with Mr Darcy when she saw what a big house he owned.  In the early 19th century a woman of her class without much money was much better off if she could marry a fortune.  In the mid 19th century, Jane Eyre followed the conventions of her time by insisting on legal marriage, although her inherited wealth would have passed to Mr Rochester when that marriage took place.  Perhaps it was as well that, when they finally married, he was maimed and even less attractive than before.

But isn't it time for a different kind of romance in which the partners share what money they have - and it may not be much - and help and nurture one another?  I recall the ideal of a loving, equal comradeship, which was not unknown when I was younger.  It's present even in some unexpected 19th century novels.Perhaps the most unexpected is Dickens' Little Dorrit, with its conclusion of a marriage in which both partners together "Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness", without the corruption of great wealth.  Although the novel ends with marriage, it doesn't treat that marriage as the culmination of the characters' lives.  Instead it indicated that they have a future.  

The final sentence is one of my favourite endings of any novel: 

"They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.

That's the kind of partnership in which I'd like to believe - and it may be a more enjoyable and plausible one to imagine in these difficult times.