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.


Dominic said...

I liked, for similar reasons, the partnership described by Hardy at the end of Far from the Madding Crowd:

"He accompanied her up the hill, explaining to her the details of his forthcoming tenure of the other farm. They spoke very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship--camaraderie--usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death--that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam."

Kathz said...

Yes, which is surprising from Hardy. Oddly Lady Chatterley's Lover also - because of the class perspective - breaks from the convention though Mellors sounds like an awful lover and it's not a novel I like.

Kathz said...

Come to think of it, it may be the class perspective in Hardy - who was understandably reticent about his origins - that makes him look for a different model for romance.

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