A romance is the genre claimed for ‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift, a novel which I’m reading for the third time prior to discussing at http://thespring.co.uk Book Group this month. Yes, it is a marvellous story of love but never borders on the sickly sweet, happy ending which I’ve always associated with that genre. I’ve avoided claiming romance for my own novels when clearly they are about relationships and love. Why?
Looking for dictionary definitions I find, ‘a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love’. In another, referring to adventure, lost lands perhaps, mystery and excitement are key, with remoteness added to the mix. I think of Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’. Romance does not necessitate sexual attraction but the emotional attraction involves an intimate relationship, Eros rather than familial.
From Plato we have platonic love which contrasts with romantic love as it precludes sexual relations. This can lead to unrequited love for one or both of those involved. A painful situation.
The word romance was originally an adverb of Latin origin ‘romanicus’ meaning from the Roman style. It is believed to have been taken up by the French vernacular meaning ‘verse tales’ and in the European Medieval period focused on chivalric adventure not combining the idea of love until the 17th century. However the idea of courtly love does evolve from the former period. We think of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.
From literature we learn of the dangers of love, the tragedy. ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’. And isn’t that where romance tells the best stories. The conflicts, the physical and psychological problems of relationships.
I argued for literary fiction in a recent blog not being an escape from the real world but work that draws you in and takes you on to the last page and beyond. A novel which you may well reflect on for a long time. So maybe this is where I’ve been unhappy with ‘romantic fiction’ being too bland. The ending being expected, known, before you started, the plot merely a device to reach the too obvious ‘living happily ever after’.
Is it that my mother loved the novels of Georgette Heyer, Barbara Cartland as well as the detective stories of Agatha Christie which I therefore tried and failed to enjoy? For me it seemed that if you read one, you’d read them all. You knew where the plot was going again and again. This was escape from reality with nothing to bother about after you’d finished.
Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ I loved, but then didn’t we all? There was enough drama, twists and turns, to outdo the romance. Reading ‘My Cousin Rachel’ recently I was bored after the first chapter. The establishment of the hanged man as a trope I was drawn to and was pleased that it was referred to at the end. But it felt like an outside cover for an obvious plot of innocent and naive man drawn to evil woman: will he or won’t he escape? Soon after the second chapter I realised that I couldn’t have cared less.
Is it the cynicism of old age?
Not so. True there are not many novels I can cite that I have hugely enjoyed which feature a romantic relationship. It is cheating perhaps to mention Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning ‘All the Light We Cannot See’. The brevity of the final encounter of the blind French girl, Marie-Laure and German orphan, Werner, is essentially about love, a love that has been brewing over the air waves though in no way sexual. I can focus on the love affair between Thomas McNulty and John Cole in Sebastian Barry’s ‘Days with End’ for this is truly sexual and life affirming.
I have to say that romance has featured in all my novels though often to one side of the main focus. In ‘The Eye of God’ Jack and Jill learn to love each other though this is overlaid by his mother’s hold over him, the background of his father’s death. ‘A Retrospective’ is the love for a dead woman, Celia, by her son and the child turned adult, Eleanor. The focus here is on the manner of her death and his lost father. ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ is pure romance ending in tragedy, inevitable though it is. Greta Salway, the famous crime novelist, in ‘Incident on the Line’, examines the many relationships she’s had with men in an attempt to understand why a fateful discovery has occurred. The reader may well believe on the final page that her relationship with lover, Roger, will turn out all right.
Yes, we might discuss whether ‘Mothering Sunday’, this romance, is in fact a tragedy. There is certainly no happy ending. Or is there? And that is why it is worth reading for I’m left, as I expect most readers will be, reflecting, filled with this escape into reality.