Category Archives: Real-life Romance

Real-life Romance: The Scholarly Professor and Edith

The young J.R.R. Tolkien. Doesn’t he just ooze romance?

Real life is better than fiction sometimes. More unbelievable than fiction too, but that’s another topic. This post is the second of four to mesh two of my favourite blog topics: romance and history. Because I realized, when I thought about it, that I knew at few stories from history that were eventful enough to be a romance novel on their own. May I present the second Person Whose Life Could’ve Been the Plot of a Romance Novel… J.R.R. Tolkien!

(The first post, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning: From Recluse to Romance,” can be found here)

You might not be surprised to see Tolkien on this list, because I wrote about his thoughts on true love before. Clearly, the man had thought about love at least once in his life–a departure from his usual ruminations on rune-making and language inventing, I’m sure. And he does mention love once or twice in his epic Lord of the Rings, even if he does banish Arwen and Aragorn’s romance to the appendix. But the actual story of his falling in love with Edith–well, it might be more like a romance novel than you’d expect from a scholarly-looking professor who smoked pipes.

Tolkien starts off telling his love story to his son by saying, “My own history is so exceptional, so wrong and imprudent in nearly every point that it makes it difficult to counsel prudence.” Clearly, the reason he wrote it down for Christopher was to teach him something, but feels, like many parents, that his own life was not a particularly good example for his children to follow. He’s talking about how to have a good marriage, and be happy in love, but he’s afraid his way is not really the best way to go about that, even if it did turn out very well in the end.

First of all, Tolkien falls in love at eighteen with a Protestant. Tolkien was a Catholic. Now, some people might be confused at what the problem is here, but at the time everyone knew there was an ocean of difference between Protestants and Catholics, even if they both called themselves Christians (the Reformation, and some of the wars and violence that came out of that, might have something to do with that). Even today, Catholics and Protestants might hesitate to get involved with each other. But anyway, Tolkien and Edith Mary Bratt fell in love over their shared interest of visiting tea shops with balconies, and using the sugar lumps on the tables to toss into the hats of people walking below. Picture the serious college professor doing that! And, once in love, ran straight into the disapproval of Tolkien’s mentor, who viewed Edith as not only a dreadful Protestant, but also a distraction to Tolkien’s studies. Straight off, this mentor forbade Tolkien to see her. (See? Romantic plot elements 1 & 2.) Except Tolkien, instead of doing the Romeo and Juliet thing, listened to his mentor and stayed away from Edith.

So there is Tolkien, miserably working his way through school and whiling away the time till he is twenty-one and able to talk to Edith again (you know, once he’s graduated school and everything). And Edith–well, she meets someone else and gets engaged. (Romantic plot element 3).  Tolkien doesn’t blame her, as he says, “She was perfectly free and under no vow to me, and I should have had no just complaint (except according to the unreal romantic code) if she had got married to someone else.” But the minute he turns twenty-one he wastes no time writing her and telling her how he feels, to her absolute astonishment. She thought, since she hadn’t heard a peep from him for years, that he had forgotten all about her.

The two of them had a romantic reunion under a railway viaduct, apparently, and Edith returned her engagement ring to the other guy. Tolkien clearly feels inadequate upon his marriage, telling his son, Christopher, “Think of your mother! … I was a young fellow, with a moderate degree, and apt to write verse, a few dwindling pounds, and no prospects, a Second Lieut. on 7/6 a day in the infantry where the chances of survival were against you heavily.” I don’t know what the other guy’s qualifications were, but Edith obviously preferred Tolkien despite all of this. And, according to biographer Humphrey Carpenter, it was a happy marriage despite the rocky start: “Those friends who knew Ronald and Edith Tolkien over the years never doubted that there was deep affection between them. It was visible in the small things, the almost absurd degree in which each worried about the other’s health, and the care in which they chose and wrapped each other’s birthday presents’; and in the large matters, the way in which Ronald willingly abandoned such a large part of his life in retirement to give Edith the last years in Bournemouth that he felt she deserved, and the degree in which she showed pride in his fame as an author.” (p. 158)

As Tolkien tells his son, “the greatest of these [romantic] tales do not tell of the happy marriage of such great lovers, but of their tragic separation.” Fortunately for him, that part of the romantic story did not come true. He and Edith were married for fifty-five years, and died within twenty-one months of each other. And as I mentioned before, Edith was Tolkien’s inspiration for the beautiful Lúthien Tinúviel in The Silmarillion.

And that’s the story. The whole story, in Tolkien’s words, can be found in Letter #43 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Other sources are Wikipedia and Humphrey Carpenter’s autobiography.

Does this story change your opinion of Tolkien? Any other real-life characters you know of, whose life was absurdly similar to romantic novel clichés?

 

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Filed under Real-life Romance, True Romance

Real-life Romance: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning {PD}

Real life is better than fiction sometimes. More unbelievable than fiction too, but that’s another topic. This post will be the first of four to mesh two of my favourite blog topics: romance and history. ‘Cuz I realized, when I thought about it, that I knew at least four stories from history that were eventful enough to be a romance novel on their own. And here you thought real life was boring…

You might’ve thought real life was boring too, if you were Elizabeth Barrett. Or, at least, your life was incredibly boring. Plagued by a mysterious illness since you were fifteen, too frail and weak to go anywhere, shut up away from society in your little home, with only an addiction to morphine to dull your pain. Of course, a friend describes you as “a slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on each side of a most expressive face; large, tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, and a smile like a sunbeam,” which sounds very much like a heroine of a romantic novel, but of what use is that if no one ever sees you? The first act of any romantic novel tends to be boy-meets-girl, and that’s not too likely if you only ever see your family.

But Elizabeth Barrett had a hobby to fill all those hours stuck in the house, and this might be why you’re wracking your brains and going, ah, that name is so familiar! Elizabeth Barrett was a poet. And more than that, she was a successful poet, which is a rare thing. She’d been introduced to several of the literary figures of her day, such as William Wordsworth and Alfred Lord Tennyson (more vaguely remembered names from that long-ago English class!), and she’d published a few popular volumes of poetry. (“Popular volumes of poetry” may sound a bit strange to your ears, but rest assured such things did exist once upon a time.) And her poetry was so good that when Robert Browning read it, he could not resist sending her a fan letter – gushing over the “fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought,” and then adding, “I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart—and I love you too…” Oh wow, he wasn’t a shy guy, was he?

And Elizabeth, not too worried about why this guy she’d never met was telling her he loved her, wrote back. Well, it probably was an interesting change from staying home and writing poetry.

So a meeting was arranged, he began to court her, and they fell in love. He was a poet as well, so they at least had common interests to talk about. But she was six years older than him, and an invalid, so she could hardly believe he was interested in her. Her family couldn’t believe it either, and dismissed him as a gold-digger. So the two of them secretly married and went off to live in Italy, where they were, by all accounts, very happy.  (That’s how she became Elizabeth Barrett Browning, you see?)

And she got a whole series of poems out of it! (Life inspires art, what more can a writer ask for?) Not to mention feeling stronger once she got to Italy, and being able to get out more. She even gave birth to a son, though she did have several miscarriages. Her proud husband convinced her that publishing her love sonnets was a good idea, and fortunately (since people’s love poetry all too often are not something that ought to be published), her love sonnets were genuinely good. So she became even more well-known as a poet, and though she was never exactly strong, she did have a far more active social life until she died at fifty-five.

Her love sonnets are entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese*, and the second-last one is probably the most well-known. I think it captures the wild exuberance of love really well, so in case I didn’t do Robert and Elizabeth’s story justice, you can read it below (You can actually read their whole story through the sonnets, but it’s a little more difficult since it’s poetry. It’s very beautiful though):

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

What do you think – can real life stories be more entertaining than fiction?

* The reason she called them Sonnets from the Portuguese was because she only decided to publish them as if they were translations of foreign sonnets – in order to be less obvious about the fact she was describing her whole romantic life in them. Robert Browning suggested she choose Portuguese for the language, because his nickname for her was “my little Portuguese.” And now you know.

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Filed under On Writing, Real-life Romance