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?
Looking for some more romantic reads? Check out my short novellas, Is He Prince Charming? and Paris in Clichés. Or sign up for my author newsletter.