Tag Archives: romance

Do People Fall in Love Out of Gratitude?

What’s going on here? A romance novel is seriously making the hero fall for a girl simply because she adored him first?

quotables button“[T]hough Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”

– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Shouldn’t there be something grander? Shouldn’t she have been the prettiest girl in the room, and he couldn’t keep his eyes off her? (But in real life, there’s always someone prettier). Shouldn’t he have somehow found her absolutely unique? (But everyone blurs together until we take the time to get to know them.) Shouldn’t she have hidden her feelings until he’d fallen good and hard for her? (But Jane Austen knew this didn’t work– “Few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement.”)

Northanger Abbey is perhaps Jane Austen’s attempt to inject a little ‘realism’ into novels–most deliberately in her attempts to spoof Gothic novels by showing how the spooky can be very ordinary (mysterious papers turn out to be a laundry list, a mean-spirited man turns out to be driven by greed rather than remorse or guilt)–but perhaps also in her handling of the romance between the central characters, Henry and Catharine. He falls in love with her because she was in love with him! He falls in love out of gratitude!

But this is realistic! Who doesn’t find their opinion of someone improving because we know they like us? I’ve experienced it myself, when people have straight-up told me they enjoy hanging out with me, I find myself wanting to hang out with them more. Because they told me they like me, it takes the pressure off. I don’t have to wonder what they think about me being myself. I know, so I can just be myself. And focus on getting to know them more and more.

It’s a way for one person to distinguish themselves from the sea of other people in the world–this person is memorable because this person admires me. Why waste time on people who don’t like you, when you know someone does?

And gratitude? It is gratifying to hear someone thinks we’re clever–or pretty–or funny – or adventurous. It feels so good it leaves us wide open to manipulating flattery. We can be manipulated into suddenly thinking so very highly of someone who flatters us, and not admit that’s the reason why we suddenly think so well of them. (I can’t help but add a side-note: It’s almost more insidious when people flatter things we’re very proud of instead– “what a nice family you have,” “what wonderful people are your friends,” “your church is really amazing…”)

But when the admiration is genuine! It’s almost a relief to hear someone sincerely believes one of our strengths is actually a strength. And there comes the gratitude–and increased liking–and increased friendship–and maybe love…

Now, is this a sure-fire recipe for making friends, or falling in love? Sadly, no.

The terrible thing about letting someone know how much you like them is finding out your feelings don’t make them like you more. This is why we so rarely tell anyone how we feel! They don’t feel good that you like them, they feel pressured and afraid you expect something from them, and so they pull back. So despite trying to strengthen your relationship by sharing your admiration, you actually end up driving the person away.

Now, maybe this is not as common as we all believe. Maybe we truly all would have a thousand more healthy relationships if we just were honest about our admiration. In fact, we probably would, because people are far less likely to reject us than our negative brains want us to believe. However, it’s reality that people do react negatively. People you make an effort for do disappear. People you fall in love with don’t fall for you. The stronger your admiration for another person is, the more painful it is when it’s clearly not mutual.

So I’m not saying go out and tell everyone how you feel all the time. The risk is very great. The pain is nasty when everything goes wrong-side-up. You can’t predict the results of your honesty.

But honest admiration can result in something wonderful, even in this non-fictional world. So in the end it’s worth it to weigh the risks and open yourself up to this possibility.

 

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In Jane Austen, Nice Guys Finish First

Girls go for the bad guys, they say, and nice guys finish last. If so, then Jane Austen has achieved an amazing feat of literature by creating nice guys you want to cheer for. Nice guys many females claim they’d like to date. Nice guys who aren’t boring, but actually readable.

I realized this while reading several people online insist Frank Churchill and Henry Crawford are far more interesting than their romantic rivals (the nice guys who actually get the girl, in other words) – George Knightley and Edmund Bertram.

This is craziness, of course. You’d have to be pretty committed to living a lifetime of misery to choose Frank Churchill or Henry Crawford over George Knightley or Edmund Bertram. Let’s see why:

George Knightley:

Okay, let’s look at George Knightley first. He’s too demanding, his detractors claim. He tells Emma what to do, and yells at her when she doesn’t do something right. He’s stuck to some kind of outdated set of morals, and wants Emma to follow them too.

In contrast, Frank Churchill – well, he’s fun. (According to the anti-Knightley people, anyway). He and Emma joke around, enjoy themselves, don’t take things too seriously. Wouldn’t a marriage between them just be great fun?

Sure… until you remember Frank and Emma’s ‘fun’ is at other people’s expense, and this is exactly what Knightley was being a ‘stick-in-the-mud’ about. Emma could’ve hitched herself to a guy who was rather callous about other people’s feelings – teasing people who maybe can’t take it at the moment, flirting to make his fiancée jealous, using his charm to get away with things. At heart he’s not a villain, but his charm doesn’t make up for all his faults.

And when it comes to Knightley – you know, it’s totally okay for a guy to call a girl out on something if she’s actually wrong about it – it’s not a symbol of patriarchy or an outdated moral code. It’s merely reasonable, and I hope whoever I’d get engaged to would do the same to me. Emma was a rather frightening person for anyone in the novel to call out on her behaviour anyway, and Mr. Knightley is the only one who does it – you could say he was of equal or superior social standing so that helped make him brave enough, but then you’d be forgetting one thing. You’d be forgetting he was in love with her – who wants to risk criticizing the person you’re crazy about? He doesn’t want to lecture her. He’d rather not open her eyes to how thoughtless and cruel she’s being to others around her (at Frank’s instigation). It’s a sign of the strength of Mr. Knightley’s moral fibre that he does anyway.

And as for fun – he and Emma have lovely debates that do not descend into bickering. Being able to disagree well, and able to debate well, is one thing I think of as fun. Maybe I’m alone here…

Anyway, he’s a ‘nice guy.’ And he gets the girl. Austen writes Emma as a girl who realizes exactly what the worth of Mr. Knightley is, and doesn’t despise him for being less charming than Frank Churchill.

Edmund Bertram:

Okay, now Edmund Bertram. I have to admit, Edmund Bertram is dreadfully boring – the worst of Jane Austen’s heroes. (Jane Austen fans – if Edmund Bertram is your favourite, stick up your hand now – I’ve never met one of you yet.) He hurts Fanny over and over – completely clueless because he doesn’t know she’s desperately in love with him, but still, he hurts her. And he dithers the whole novel over this other girl who’s just charm and a pretty face (according to Austen, at least).

And Henry Crawford – he comes closest of any of Austen’s villains to being reformed.

But really, Edmund Bertram is a nice guy. He loves Fanny as a sister, not a potential wife, and that’s not really his fault since they grew up together. He doesn’t even know how much it hurts Fanny to see him with this other girl, since he actually thinks Fanny likes this girl.

Whereas Henry Crawford just starts flirting with Fanny to see if he can get her to fall for him. Sure, he claims his feelings grow deeper as time goes on, but it says something about him when you know where it started. Would he really have ‘reformed’ for her? How often do people change themselves for the better for another, and how long does that kind of change stick? He doesn’t start as a nice guy, and after all the events of the novel, he doesn’t end as one either (leaving Fanny’s cousin Maria with her reputation in tatters, and abandoning her to her fate.)

Reformed bad boys may be exciting, but in Jane Austen the nice guys finish first. (Edmund wises up to Fanny’s charms in the end…)

I’ve ranted about Mansfield Park before, if you want to read it it’s here.

Austen’s other novels:

I don’t think I have to do too much convincing to argue Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are far nicer guys than Willoughby, or that Henry Tilney (how I love this character’s snark!) is nicer than John Thorpe – and especially the General and Frederick Tilney.

And now we come to Mr. Darcy…

Mr. Darcy:

Aha, someone is arguing now. What about the most famous of them all – Mr. Darcy? Isn’t he emphatically a stuck-up prig in Pride and Prejudice, and doesn’t that show girls only want arrogant dudes who look down on them?

No, think of Mr. Darcy as that awkward dude at the party, who doesn’t quite know how to talk to anyone. When he does talk, he just makes people look at him strange. Completely socially awkward, especially in comparison with smooth talkers like Wickham. Haven’t you met people like that? Maybe ignored people like that?

You’d be right if you insisted Darcy is a bit too condescending and superior at first (awkwardly superior), but he does learn, and more importantly, Elizabeth doesn’t fall for him until AFTER he learns. (Contrary to how she is often portrayed by people, she DOESN’T feel any hidden, burning attraction to him at the beginning of the novel at all. No slap-slap/kiss-kiss, in other words.) He has to be a nice guy first.

Compare this to several Bronte heroes. Now, I’ve never been able to get into their books, and I really should give them another chance because I have reread books before and liked them so much more the second time. BUT I confess to a complete inability to see how Heathcliff, or even Rochester, is romantic at all. If you want to be treated horribly, sure, by all means fall in love with them. Let one lie to you, and the other be all moody and violent. Ugh, so romantic.

In Conclusion:

Authors can write their ‘nice guys’ as Mary Sues (or Gary Stus or whatever you want to call the male version) – far too easily. I’ve read many novels where the romantic hero is very, very boring. He’s supposed to be the epitome of good, and he is, to the point of dullness. The solution to this, it is said, is to add faults.

But add too many faults, and you just end up reinforcing the trope, “All Girls Want Bad Boys.”

It takes a genius like Jane Austen to make the nice-guy heroes be exactly the kind of person real-life women would fall in love with.

What do you think? Girls, who’s your favourite Austen character? Guys, are you ever offended by which Austen men get the girl in the end?

Also – I just released my sixth short ebook this weekend – it’s a romantic short story about one girl’s confidence or lack thereof towards one guy, and it’s called Lookin’ Good. Check it out and drop me a line or review telling me what you think!

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How to Catch a Man 101: Show More Affection Than You Feel

AKA Dating Advice from Dear Jane Austen

Bingley&Jane_CH_55

Bingley and Jane, by C.E. Brooks. {PD-US}

“There are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement,” [said Charlotte]. “In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.”

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 6

Here’s the trouble with romance!

Let me start off by saying this is not true in most books and movies out there. If you took the romance advice of most plots, you’d begin to think the way to fall in love with someone is to be as deliberately antagonistic as possible. Insult him to his face! Slap him! Try to avoid him as much as possible – if he’s really fallen in love with you during that half second that you met, he’ll keep coming back for more. Beyond any reasonable expectation, he’ll keep coming back again and again and again, no matter how much you insist you don’t want to see him. He’ll wait for you to change your mind.

Isn’t that ridiculous?

So – more evidence Jane Austen is a cut above (many) other romance writers out there! She’s dealing with reality here. She’s dealing with the reality most people aren’t masochistic enough to keep chasing someone who keeps pushing them down. Most people aren’t that good with rejection.

But I said this was the trouble with romance, didn’t I? Why is this a reality a problem?

Well, mostly because you have to show a lot of interest before you even know you’re interested, logically.

Most people aren’t going to hang around forever while the person they just felt a flash of attraction to makes up their mind, especially if that dithering looks a shade too similar to rejection. Move on. Plenty of fish in the sea. No time for this.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this – it’s just reality! Just the crazy system we have to live in. It makes us appreciate the true romances that actually work out, that’s all.

And in case you think I’m reading too much into Jane Austen, I don’t think she completely disagrees with her character, Charlotte Lucas (the character I’m quoting up at the top). After all, Elizabeth’s sister Jane does lose Bingley because she is too guarded and he can’t tell how much she likes him. Neither can any of Bingley’s friends.

Elizabeth argues to Charlotte that Jane is just taking her time to get to know Bingley (which seems to be quite sensible). Charlotte doubts whether this is a good strategy for the situation.

Here is Charlotte’s very practical (perhaps cynical?) solution:

“Jane should therefore make the most of every half hour in which she can command his attention. When she is secure of him, there will be leisure for falling in love as much as she chooses.”

Here’s where I (and perhaps Jane Austen) part ways with Charlotte’s logic. Making someone else fall for you first, before you decide to fall – that seems little self-centered. A little too self-centered.

What’s the solution then?

There isn’t one. That’s why romance is a mystery. That’s why it’s beautiful when it sprouts mutually for two people at the same time, and miserable when it only sprouts for one of them. That’s why we eternally write books and movies and plays about it. Because we can’t figure it out.

There’s my thoughts on it, anyway. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!

(Oh, and stay tuned to this blog in the upcoming weeks! There may be some exciting changes and experiments in the new year!)

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Observations on Being Single, Revisited

I wrote a post for Valentine’s Day a couple years back, and clearly felt I’d said everything I’d needed to say about it, because I never wrote another one since… and this year, I thought I’d look back on it and see if I still felt the same way.

I do. I still feel like there’s a gulf of misunderstandings between men and women that just cause frustration all around! Double-thinking what you do, and being cautious in what you say, are still so necessary… and yet they still build walls in what should just be easy, wonderful friendships. And then just – confusion all around if what you want is something more! So, without further ado, I’m going to re-post my old post below.

(I know. It’s Valentine’s Day on Friday. But I hope to post entirely new content on Friday, instead of slacking off with a re-post, so you get the re-post today!)

There are two types of Valentine’s Day posts that singles write: posts whining about how depressing Valentine’s Day is when everybody around them is in a relationships, and posts celebrating how singles get to spend the whole day spoiling no one but themselves (oh goodie). This is not one of those posts. I’m not going to rant, or write an ode to singleness here. I’d just like to point out a few things I’ve noticed, and this seems like an appropriate time to do it.

First, being single never excludes you from “the game of love.” You always get tugged into second-guessing, and misunderstanding, and awkward moments like anyone else. I can have completely normal conversations with a guy, and then hours later realize, “Oh, I hope he didn’t read too much into that…” or “Maybe he had ulterior motives for starting that seemingly innocent conversation…” When the most likely explanation is that it was an innocent conversation. And that’s the default explanation in my head, but waaaaaaaay in the back of my mind is a little voice telling me to be careful, because there’s a miniscule possibility it wasn’t.

And, of course, if you’re actually interested in whomever you’re having a conversation with, it makes things a lot more complex…

I guess I just wish interactions between guys and girls didn’t have to involve second-guessing and misunderstandings – that every friendly conversation was just a friendly conversation unless we both actually wanted something different – and additionally, that we didn’t have to eternally test the water if we actually do like someone.

Singleness shouldn’t involve playing games. No more gushing about how much we love being single if we’re actually keeping our eyes wide open for a special someone. No more “we’re just friends” when you’re secretly wishing you’re not, or insisting “we’re just friends” because you’re afraid the other person is getting the wrong idea. Don’t know why, but singleness seems to involve second-guessing, over-analyzing, and pretending to a better version of ourselves.

I don’t like fakery, and I don’t like playing games. Sometimes it seems like the process of being single involves too much of both.

Anyway, hope everyone has a good Valentine’s Day!

Note: Being in a relationship is not necessarily a solution to the above… I know it brings its own set of problems!

Did I offer a solution in the above? No, because I didn’t have one. I still don’t have one. Except – try to take every opportunity to be honest. Treat everyone with respect as a human being – every single human being deserves to be treated with respect. And… if you have anything better to add, please put it in the comments below!

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Top Couples in Fiction, Breaking the Rules of Novel-Writing, Killing Off the Printed Book – All Discussed Here at Stories and Stuff in 2012!

Goodbye 2012! (English New Year, by Amgalanbaatar, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0))

Goodbye 2012! (English New Year, by Amgalanbaatar, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0))

It’s not quite the new year yet, but let’s get this up before all of the Christmas business  take over:

Top 5 Literary Couples

Here’s a secret – any time you put ‘top five’ or ‘top ten’ in your title you increase the likelihood that people will find and read it. I don’t use this trick often, but maybe I should. All the same, I think a list of the top literary couples in fiction does deserve to be highly rated, so I’m glad this post is at the top. And no, this list does not include Romeo and Juliet, or Edward and Bella from Twilight – debate at your leisure whether I made a mistake in leaving them out.

Breaking the 10 Simple Rules for Writing a Novel

Everyone wants to know the secret for writing the novel everyone will read. Is it actually a matter of following all the rules perfectly and coming up with a bestseller, or is there something more mysterious to the writing process?

Will E-books Kill the Printed Book?

Big news this year – ebook sales are going up! And up and up and up. The internet loved to debate endlessly whether this meant the end of the traditional book publishing industry, and here I joined in on the action.

Those Pesky Phoenicians! – A Thought From Herodotus

Why is this in the Top 10? Herodotus is cool and all, but I’d argue The Iliad beats him out in the list of ancient works of literature. But my obsession over The Iliad did not make the Top 10 posts of this year, while good old Herodotus did. Glad to know the venerable old historian is still respected.

Let’s Just Blame the Plot on Someone’s Sex Drive

Putting ‘sex’ in the title is another way to make your page views go up, as I discovered with this post. When readers discovered I was merely ranting about how mediocre authors use random attraction between characters as a motivation for the whole plot of a novel, without any further development of the characters or their motivations, I’m not sure how many of them stuck around. All the same, this is an annoying issue with romance novels that should be resolved!

Why Some Girls Like Mr. Darcy

Just talk about Mr. Darcy when talking about romance novels, and most readers will have an opinion. But let’s not talk about whether he’s good-looking, or rich, because that’s been gone over SO MANY times before. And critics love to sneer at Jane Austen fans and claim they’re all delusional gold-diggers. No, let’s look at the complexity of the character Jane Austen created (see character depth, in contrast to the lack of character development described in the post above this one), and see why this is a good reason for fans to enjoy reading about him.

Writing Characters of Different Ethnicities

I admitted a struggle I had with my writing, and the post made it into the Top 10.

Real-life Romance: A Monk and a Nun Get Married

A monk and a nun get married – it does sound a bit surprising, doesn’t it. And ‘real-life’ romance? Who on earth could this monk and nun actually be?

Glad to see this post in the Top 10, as a history lover, and a lover of sweet stories of real-life romance.

Talking Down to Readers

J.R.R. Tolkien has been accused of talking down to his readers. Is this true? With the release of The Hobbit movie, this post is just as timely as ever – if anything, The Hobbit talks down to its readers far more than Lord of the Rings!

AND… The Top Viewed Fiction Post of 2012:

Last year I separated this list into non-fiction and fiction posts. Since I didn’t want to make a list completely composed of chapters from Why Polly? I decided to just mention the top fiction post of my blog last on this list. And surprise, surprise, it is not actually a chapter from Why Polly?Not Emma, A Missing Chapter from Jane Austen’s Emma actually beats it out! Shows that the classic established authors win every time. 🙂

Have a Merry Christmas and a fantastic New Year! Thanks for reading!

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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?

***

Prince.CharmingReady for some fictional romance? Try my short ebook, Prince Charming, today!

 

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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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Secret Admirers Don’t Exist

“I have a secret secret admirer. Not only is her identity a secret—but so is the fact that she admires me.”

Jarod Kintz, This Book Title is Invisible

It’s a bit of an awkward admission to make, but every once in a while, I need to give up on a guy more quickly. I think most girls have a tendency to do this – hang onto hope that the guy might actually have an interest in you, even if he’s given you zero sign of it. At some point, you just have to face the central premise of He’s Just Not That Into You. That is, that far too many fairytales, romance novels and chick flicks have trained us to think that maybe, just maybe, the guy has a secret flame for you. Even though he doesn’t show it.

(I don’t recommend that movie, by the way. It’s just barely okay, not to mention the fact it completely subverts the message it pretends to be sending, by ending the way it does.)

But really, does anything show better how rarely romantic fiction matches up with reality? (I wrote about this before). Worse yet, if we don’t realize it’s not reality, we’ll trick ourselves into thinking in unhealthy ways. Sometimes, in fiction, ridiculous situations are necessary because they make a good plot. But you can’t let them raise expectations – and I don’t just mean expectations that a tall, dark and handsome stranger will drop out of the sky and declare he is in love with you.

So, take the Hunger Games. I had no idea this book was so focused on romance, given the fact it appears to be about kids forced to act as gladiators and kill each other, but it is. Apparently, for eleven years Peeta was in love with Katniss and never said anything to her. This makes a very good plot! Katniss finds out she’s in the ring, ready to kill a guy who is apparently devoted to her, and she actually figures out a way to play this angle to her advantage. Then the author makes the tried-and-true move of adding in another guy waiting for her back home, and makes the situation a genuine love triangle. Very good plot! Bear any resemblance to reality? Not really. If Peeta didn’t have the guts to say anything to Katniss before, how did he suddenly get the nerve to say something in front of millions of people on national television?

Okay, so Hunger Games fans might jump on me here and say it makes perfect sense. But my point is, people read that and start to hope that guy they’ve never talked to might secretly have a crush on them back! You know, they were just to shy to say so! In this case, I’d like to present the character of Romeo as a counter-example. Strange, but I’m going to use Romeo and Juliet as an example of more-realistic fiction for once. Romeo starts off the play as a secret admirer of Rosalie, but can’t work up the nerve to talk to her. He just can’t. All he can do is moon from afar. And then he meets Juliet, forgets about Rosalie completely, and never does talk to her in the end. Yes, I’m saying I think it’s far more likely the guy will meet someone else he actually can talk to, before devoting himself to secret admiration for years on end.

To pick another work of literature as an example, let me bring up Mansfield Park again. In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford makes the mistake of trying to make Fanny Price fall in love with him, and instead falls in love with her! Oh, the drama! Don’t we all wish that jerk who’s been breaking all the hearts of the women around us would fall in love with us, just so we have the chance to teach them a lesson? Fanny is, of course, far too modest to realize Henry Crawford has fallen for her, which is the only reason she doesn’t notice he has, because everyone else around her does. She is completely blindsided when he tells her how her feels (and he is completely blindsided that she doesn’t feel the same way – their relationship is an interesting subversion of the Pride-and-Prejudice-plot). But really, unless you are far more modest than Fanny, you’d probably catch on faster than her. But if you think that jerk really doesn’t like you, you’re probably right. Don’t hope he’s trying to disguise a mad attraction.

What? Am I being a spoilsport here? Am I ignoring the fact that guys sometimes do need time to work up the nerve to say something? No, let me clarify. I mean if he’s never given you any sign of interest, you just gotta face reality, no matter what fiction might try to tell you. He might need time to work up his nerve, but if he takes eleven years, he’s not working up his nerve. He’s probably not even thinking of working up his nerve.

Therefore: secret admirers might exist, but not for long. They either say something or move along. 🙂

There you have it – another reason why fiction and real life differ. Agree or disagree?

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Top 5 Literary Couples

public domain

So if I complain about Romeo and Juliet, Twilight, et al., what literary couple do I think worthy of being in the “top five”? Clearly, ones with some sort of strong personality types, and some sort of relationship journey. I don’t necessarily think these couples have to be in “romance books,” because sometimes the best romance plots are side-plots to the main events of the story (and I think only a truly skilled writer can drag out the will-they-or-won’t-they? over an 80 000 word novel without boring the reader). Anyway, I thought I might as well come clean and tell you exactly which romances in fiction I enjoyed. The list below is in no particular order.

Wizard Howl and Sophie:

Oh, Howl’s Moving Castle! Have I mentioned before how much I love this book? Well, take a vain, heartless, irresponsible wizard (with a habit of breaking ladies’ hearts), and a shy hat-maker currently under a curse that turned her into an old woman, and tell me how they’re going to get along. Unfortunately for Howl, Sophie’s transformation gives her to courage to tell people exactly what she thinks – now she’s only a crotchety old woman, after all. Even more unfortunately, Howl’s next conquest is set to be one of Sophie’s sisters, whom Sophie has fiercely groomed for adventure (not a broken heart) from her youth.

Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett

If you’ve been following my blog at all, you knew this one was going to be on the list, didn’t you? Jane Austen is one of the few authors who can make her characters agonize over does he like me or doesn’t he? for chapters, without making said character absolutely annoying. Darcy and Elizabeth both have faults they have to overcome, and it’s pretty clear by the end of Pride and Prejudice that they will still have to struggle with these faults for the rest of their life, even if they have found happiness.  Also, I like a couple who can disagree and work through it. I’m starting to realize more and more how many people shy away from disagreements, and how sometimes you need to just face that disagreement if you want to have any kind of relationship at all. Yes, I need a guy who won’t let me think I’m always right. 🙂

Gilbert Blythe and Anne Shirley

Anne Shirley breaks her slate over Gilbert’s head, because he had the nerve to call her “carrots” – is there any more iconic moment to the whole Anne of Green Gables series? From that moment on, readers just knew Anne and Gilbert were meant for each other. (I also loved Anne’s struggles through the series between her “friendship” feelings for Gilbert, and her ideas of what “falling in love” should be like. I think this is something many a girl has struggled with – and we all know guys who complain about being stuck in the “friend zone”)

Faramir and Eowyn

And now a couple from Lord of the Rings – surprise! It doesn’t include Aragorn.

I’ve always loved Eowyn. Her complaint to Aragorn of being a bird in a gilded cage, her disguise as Dernholm, her “But no living man am I!” defiance to the Witch-King… Lord of the Rings has very few strong female characters, but Eowyn more than makes up for it. I was SO surprised she ended up with Faramir, because if you read the books before you’ve seen the movies, you know Arwen doesn’t really show up as a character at all. Eowyn and Aragorn have all the interaction, and I thought in the end she would overcome his reluctance. (You don’t find out till the appendix that it’s not reluctance, but Aragorn is in love with Arwen the whole time.) But despite not expecting her to end up with Faramir, I really enjoyed reading about how they got to know each other, and “The Steward and the King” is one of my favourite chapters in the book. Faramir is another great, complex character in Lord of the Rings, so it made sense for them to get together. Also, Eowyn starts to realize by focusing so hard on her idea of what perfection in a man should look like, she is missing out on the decent, honourable man standing right in front of her.

I was SO sad they cut this part out of the movie, but I guess they couldn’t have done it justice!

Tommy and Tuppence

Agatha Christie has been knocked before for flat characterization, and I’ve never understood why because for most of her novels her characterization is perfectly serviceable to the plot. The focus is the mystery, after all. Despite this, I think she does have some characters in her 60+ novels that stick out, and two of these are Tommy and Tuppence. Take the first lines of The Secret Adversary:

“Tommy, old thing!”

“Tuppence, old bean!”

That gives you a pretty interesting intro to these two. Tuppence is a clever, broke, and not-very-good typist, who is forthright about her plans to marry a millionaire. Tommy is your stereotypical English bloke. They’re both survivors of WWI who returned to England to find there’s no jobs for veterans. So what do they do? Start fighting crime, of course.

There may be more of them that I missed. Have you read any of the above, and do you think I missed any important couples?

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Let’s Just Blame the Plot on Someone’s Sex Drive

The Problems with Leaving Romance up to “Overwhelming Attraction”

The Kiss

‘The Kiss,’ by Francesco Hayez

You know what I hate? I hate when romantic comedies or romance novels set up a perfectly good antagonistic relationship between two main characters (you know, where they take an instant dislike to each other, like in the beginning of Pride and Prejudice), and then easily overcome this obstacle by making them realize their mad attraction for each other. The characters go from screaming at each other from across the room, to climbing all over each other and unable to tear themselves away. Okay, I’m not going to argue it’s unrealistic. I know hormones can make people do crazy and unbelievable things (whether that’s a unjustifiable excuse for anything is another topic, but hey, I’m saying I know it happens). But I hate it when an author makes a sex drive over-rule everything that came before. The author spent half the book showing us how the characters can’t get along. And now we’re supposed to believe it’s all solved because the two had one make-out session in some deserted hallway or something?

I hate it because it’s lazy. I don’t care how realistic it is, it’s like the author realized they did their job a little too well and it seems impossible to justify that their two characters ever will get together. In Pride and Prejudice, it takes Elizabeth chapters and chapters for her to realize she’s misjudged Mr. Darcy. But if you don’t want to write chapters and chapters of someone’s internal thoughts, struggling to make them seem believable, you can just throw hormones into the mix, because isn’t that reality? I guess for me the problem is, in this case, that reality is unrealistic. And I want to read about how people process their changing opinions. Good fiction, for me, is opening a window into characters’ minds, not having characters jerked about by uncontrollable urges, random environmental events (like an earthquake from nowhere), or deus ex machinas. It just feels lazy. Real life doesn’t have a plot either, but fiction is pretty boring without one.

I guess it also doesn’t tell me anything about the characters, other than the fact they have a sex drive like everyone else. Part of the reason I enjoy well-written­ romance is because the interaction between two characters reveal more and more what the characters are like. For better or worse, they can’t hide who they are, and the other has to decide if they’re up for putting up with that or not. If you short-cut the process by throwing in “overwhelming attraction,” you end up with the kind of romance novels people laugh – cookie-cutter, cliché, with the main characters indistinguishable from the main characters of every cookie-cutter novel.

This is even worse in fanfiction. It’s shooting fish in a barrel to complain about fanfiction, because most writers are clearly amateur, but I have to bring it up anyway. (And yes, sometimes I do have to spend more time with characters after a book or movie is over, and passably written fanfiction is one way to do it. That, or write fanfiction myself – see my one-shots of Jane Austen). The basis of too much fanfiction is romantic relationships between characters that had no romantic relationship in the original work. So the antagonistic relationship, or even a lack of any relationship at all, is already set up for the would-be fanfiction writer. The problem now is to write the characters into an understanding. But what reason can you give to make enemies overcome their differences? Oh, just throw in a sex drive and everything will work itself out.

It’s even worse with characters that are supposed to be pretty emotionless already, like Sherlock Holmes or Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. I’m not saying you can’t write a pretty convincing story about them falling in love. It’s just going to take a lot of effort. A lot of believable plot events that make the characters re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about themselves. If Sherlock Holmes finds himself kissing Irene Adler or something, he’s not going to throw himself into a passionate relationship with her. He’s going to freak out. After all, Doctor Watson clearly says, “[Holmes] never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results.” Don’t you see – if such a thing were to happen, Sherlock Holmes would be in danger of no longer being Sherlock Holmes. It would throw his whole mental processes in doubt, and his mental processes are the basis of the Sherlock Holmes character.

And yes, I’ve read a few too many novels that have had this problem. Have you? Agree or disagree? Thoughts?

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