Saturday, July 15, 2006

Aphrodite visits Parnassus

Academic critics of romance fiction have long been preoccupied with a single question: is the genre good for women readers? This worry may be patronizing, but it has a pedigree. Doesn't Don Quixote pose the same question about chivalric romance? Certainly Plato fears that a steady diet of poetry--by which they mean fiction, made-up things, and not just verse--will rot the minds of the populace as surely as Krispy Kreme doughnuts will rot their teeth. (I know, I know, but what's the classical equivalent? Some sort of baklava?) Sir Philip Sidney's defense of poesy might then serve as a defense of romance, too, with a little judicious editing:
The lawyer saith what men have determined, the historian what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech, and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest prove and persuade, thereon give artificial rules, which still are compassed within the circle of a question, according to the proposed matter. The physician weigheth the nature of man’s body, and the nature of things helpful or hurtful unto it. And the metaphysic, though it be in the second and abstract notions, and therefore be counted supernatural, yet doth he, indeed, build upon the depth of nature.

Only the romance writer disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of her own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as she goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of nature's gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of her own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as romance writers have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; nature's world is brazen, romance writers only deliver a golden.
The debate J sparked a few days ago about why romance heroines have to be so good--not patient Griseldas, to be sure, but drawn to virtue even at their caustic best--makes new sense if we read the genre through Sidney's eyes. "Now, to that which is commonly attributed to the praise of though therein a man should see virtue exalted and vice punished,—truly that commendation is peculiar to romance fiction and far off from history. For, indeed, romance ever setteth virtue so out in her best colors, making Fortune her well-waiting handmaid, that one must needs be enamored of her." Or, I suppose, we might cite Wilde: "The good end happily, and the bad end unhappily. That is what fiction means."

Recently I spent some time thinking about romance fiction and poetry in another, less high-flown context: an essay on novels with poet-protagonists for the wonderful journal Parnassus: Poetry in Review. I wasn't just being a naughty boy, smuggling a copy of Georgette Heyer up to the High Table, although I won't deny that it was fun. I also wanted to contribute, in however small a way, to the new front of academic writing about romance: that [insert preferred adjective] body of criticism which does not ask whether the books are good for their readers, but tries to read them otherwise.

Here are the opening sections, in which romance fiction appears. The piece is called "Foils and Fakers, Monsters and Makers," although I will always think of it by its original working title, "Buffy the Poetry Slayer":

Foils and Fakers, Monsters and Makers

In my twenties, newly married, eager to please my wife, I cozied up to her six best friends, the novels of Jane Austen. We didn’t get along. Maybe Elizabeth Bennett’s quip about “the efficacy of poetry in driving away love” hit a little too close to home. (Like Darcy, I preferred to consider poetry the food of love, especially on our honeymoon.) A hundred pages into Persuasion, I balked again, this time on behalf of poor Captain Benwick, “a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally in poetry,” to whom Anne Elliot recommends “a larger allowance of prose.” What was Austen’s problem? Had I known that Charlotte Brontë once wondered, with Pride and Prejudice in mind, whether there could ever be “a great artist without poetry,” no doubt I would have quoted her in defense of my slandered art. Lucky in my ignorance, I held my tongue, and have lived to find myself, like all good husbands, properly humbled.

In the last year I have become an aficionado of the poetry-bashing or poetry-praising novel, and still more of the novel-with-a-poet-protagonist. (Der Dichtersroman, I guess this last would be.) As you might expect, such books are a disparate lot. Some authors merely lift a verse, like a champagne flute, to toast a character’s passion or aplomb:

“I like my afterglow with you in motion. I measure time by how your body sways.” He bit her earlobe and she rolled to look up at him. “Okay,” he said. “I just like my afterglow with you.”

His eyes were dark as ever, but now they were hot, too, intent on her, and he took her breath away. Good grief, she thought. Look at him. He’s beautiful.

“By how my body sways?” she said instead.

“It’s from a very hot poem,” he said. “It comes to mind whenever I watch you move.”

Poetry, she thought. He’ll be surprising me forever.

-(Jennifer Crusie, Fast Women)

Others, like Austen, use poetry to limn their own genre. Persuasion, for example, hints that the novel can offer not only the pathos of Captain Benwick’s beloved Scott and Byron and the sober moral precision that Anne Elliot prescribes in its place, but also a dose of forgiving, tender humor foreign to both.

When it comes to poets as characters, the diversity continues. If many novelists treat them lightly, as foils or poseurs, still more trade on the ancient glamour of the Poet as archetypal maker, and pour out their prose as an offering to raise that noble ghost and question it on topics that more sophisticated critics now avoid. (Sappho, Ovid, and the British Romantics get this nekuia-treatment most often, thanks to their mysterious and ever-compelling lives, but the same rite summons the confected Victorian poets of A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance.) Neither indulgent nor spellbound, a few novelists patrol the graveyard of verse like Buffy the Poetry Slayer, poised to unmask a monstrous ego or put a stake through the heart of an undying, undead reputation. Milton!” they cry—and it is Milton, often enough—“Thou should’st not be living at this hour!” And the battle is on.

Foils and Fakers

For an introduction to the pleasures of the poet- or poetry-novel, however, you’ll probably want to start with something less fraught than Paul West’s Sporting with Amaryllis or Peter Ackroyd’s Milton in America. The book that won me over was a classic Regency romance: The Grand Sophy, by Georgette Heyer, inventor of the genre. The poet here is one Augustus Fawnhope, with whom Miss Cecilia Ombersley has, unfortunately, fallen in love, despite his slim prospects. A youngest son with no inheritance to speak of, Fawnhope lacks—because he’s a poet, naturally—any inclination to take up a “humdrum” position in government. Alas, he seems just as unlikely to win fame or fortune through his verse. As Cecilia’s mother observes in the opening chapter, “though his poems are very pretty, bound up in white vellum, they don’t seem to take very well, I mean, not at all like Lord Byron’s.” The billet-doux that arrives a few pages later bears this out: Nymph, when thy cerulean gaze Upon my restless spirit casts its beam— Cecilia’s older brother and financial guardian, Charles Rivenhall, is outraged:

“I thank you, I have no taste for verse!” interrupted Mr. Rivenhall harshly. “Put it on the fire, ma’am, and tell Cecilia she is not to be receiving letters without your sanction!”

“Yes, but do you think I should burn it, Charles? Only think if this were the only copy of the poem! Perhaps he wants to have it printed!”

“He is not going to print such stuff about any sister of mine!” said Mr. Rivenhall grimly, holding out an imperative hand.

Heyer nicely pokes fun here not only at Augustus, whose ill-timed and wispy effusions punctuate the novel, but also at Charles, our stuffy-but-goodhearted hero. Among the many things our heroine, the freewheeling Sophy, will teach him is a lesson about poetry familiar (like so much of Regency romance) from Pride and Prejudice. Fawnhope’s work isn’t “about’ much of anything, really, except its author’s need to churn out euphony. As for his love of Cecilia, one good sonnet—or, in this case, one good verse drama—will starve it away entirely.

Although The Grand Sophy aims to melt in your mouth like the best English trifle, Heyer takes her role as dessert chef quite seriously, and her sure hand with Fawnhope shows throughout . His poetic self-involvement, for example, may be a familiar caricature, but Heyer uses it deftly to underscore the novel’s concern with “fit conversation,” in Milton’s fine old phrase, as both the proof and the embodiment of love. The more Sophy and Charles square off, like the Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn of 1816, the better they suit each other, and that suitability plays out as a shared mastery of language. Unlike Charles’s erstwhile fiancée, Eugenia Wraxton, but quite like Charles himself, Sophy can turn on a shilling from the high-society pieties of the ton—from the French bon ton, don’t you know—to boxing slang to blunt negotiation. Fawnhope, by contrast, fawns and hopes, and the more he murmurs verses, the more he proves himself, in Sophy’s words, “the kind of man whom the waiters serve last,” too lost in thought to procure a covered chair for his female companions when it starts to rain. By the time Fawnhope has failed to help Cecilia’s younger sister through an illness—he dashes off a pretty pair of verses, wistful and grateful, respectively, as the girl first fails and recovers—we know the affair is over.

It feels just, then, not malicious, that Fawnhope should be the only major character who is not engaged to anyone, in the end. Like Austen in Persuasion, albeit more comically, Heyer makes poetry seem an art of the solitary self. It may be recited, even given to others, but it’s fundamentally about its own concerns, its own artistry, and Fawnhope admits as much. “Marriage is not for such as I am,” he shrugs to Cecilia when she breaks off their engagement, echoing the words of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Reginald Bunthorne, left single at the close of Patience:

BUNTHORNE. In that case unprecedented,
Single I must live and die –
I shall have to be contented
With a tulip or lily!

Takes a lily from button-hole and gazes affectionately at it.

ALL. He will have to be contented
With a tulip or lily!
Greatly pleased with one another,
To get married we/they decide.
Each of us/them will wed the other,
Nobody be Bunthorne's Bride!

Bunthorne, of course, famously parodies Oscar Wilde, and there’s a none-too-subtle jab at his sexuality in that rhyme about his love of a “li-lie.” Does Fawnhope, too, sketch the Poet as sexual introvert? My sense is no, given his closing work-in-progress, an ode to Sophy. “I have abandoned the notion of hailing you as Vestal virgin,” he declares, moments before Charles finally proposes to her. “My opening line now reads, Goddess, whose steady hands upheld—but I must have ink!” Exit Poet, pursuing a Muse. The story may now come to its properly comic, properly marital conclusion.

As you may have guessed, I’m rather fond of Fawnhope—and so, one suspects, is his author. Effusive, abstracted, entirely silly, entirely sincere, he stands at some distance from his more devious relative Bunthorne, a fake who lets us in on the game:

Am I alone,
And unobserved? I am!
Then let me own
I’m an æsthetic sham!
This air severe
Is but a mere
This cynic smile
Is but a wile
Of guile!
This costume chaste
Is but good taste
Let me confess!
A languid love for Lilies does not blight me!
Lank limbs and haggard cheeks do not delight me!
I do not care for dirty greens
By any means.
I do not long for all one sees
That’s Japanese.
I am not fond of uttering platitudes
In stained-glass attitudes.
In short, my mediævalism’s affectation,
Born of a morbid love of admiration!

Gilbert, throughout Patience, stages a fencing match between poetry, whether of Archibald Grosvenor’s “Idyllic” or Bunthorne’s “Fleshly” school, and the exact, exuberant wit of his libretto. The former tend to the banal and the meaningless, respectively. (“The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter of a transcendental kind,” Bunthorne observes in his patter-song.) The librettist, by contrast, is a master craftsman. Like Wilde the master of epigram, and unlike Wilde the poet, he offers sprezzatura and not overwrought Rites and Impressions. When he’s funny, it’s deliberate.

The Grand Sophy stages a rivalry between the most admired, least popular of genres and the most despised but most read, with Heyer using Fawnhope to pin down what makes a novel novelistic, at least in the limited instance of romance fiction. Or rather, Heyer restages this little debate, which was carried out in earnest back when novels were an upstart form and poems still commanded a share of the literary marketplace. Neither Captain Benwick nor Anne Elliott, you’ll remember, is an intellectual, yet both agree on “the richness of the present age” where poetry is concerned, and their conversation assumes a reader familiar, at least by name, with Marmion, The Lady of the Lake, The Bride of Abydos, and The Giaour, although perhaps as puzzled as Austen’s characters as to “how the Giaour was to be pronounced.” There are, to be sure, recent popular novels that take poetry seriously, but they do so as boosters, to show that it, too, can be a popular art. A Wild Pursuit, by Eloisa James, boasts several scenes where poems are put to use for seduction or courtship, and James—the nom de plume of Fordham English professor Mary Bly—observed in The New York Times that readers contacted her eagerly, afterward, to ask where they could obtain more work by her featured sixteenth-century poet, Richard Barnfield. (Here, at least, a sonnet gets to be the food of love!)

What would a contemporary novel look like that considers poetry to be an actual rival, an equal, alternative art?

At which point I shift to the rest of the novels--the only other romance I discuss is A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance, and I'll save my thoughts on that for another day.


  1. the most admired, least popular of genres and the most despised but most read

    Eric, I'm assuming that the former refers to poetry, the latter to romance. Given that there was a time when poetry was both widely read and admired, why do you think we've now reached a situation where poetry is the 'least popular of genres'? And are you, by making the comparison, suggesting that both romance and poetry deal with similar subjects? If so, why is the romance novel more popular than the love poem? And why is romance nontheless the 'most despised' of genres? Also, do poets nowadays write fewer love poems?

  2. Lots of questions, Laura! I'm not sure I have the answers to all of them.

    "Why do you think we've now reached a situation where poetry is the 'least popular of genres'?"

    That's a long story, with many chapters. A number of literary historians have noted that poetry's decline correlates with the rise of the novel. It may simply be that prose narrative delivers what most readers want far more directly and efficiently than verse does. The cult of "difficulty" that begins in the mid-19th century--aestheticism, symbolism, etc.--and flourishes after modernism has something to do with it. I fear that a pedagogical focus on explication as the one true way to read a poem has contributed as well. (Introduction to poetry textbooks from before New Criticism often focused on the refinement of taste, and never on what we would now call "close reading.")

    "Are you, by making the comparison, suggesting that both romance and poetry deal with similar subjects? If so, why is the romance novel more popular than the love poem?"

    I think individual love poems may be very popular, but most offer neither the narrative pleasures that romance novels do nor the libidinal ones. (Yes, there are exceptions, I know.) Many of my students get their first exposure to poetry in school, and that exposure has taught them, first and foremost, that to read a poem you have to work really, really hard. Romance fiction doesn't come with that association.

    Oops! Must run--I'll take up your other questions later today or tomorrow--

  3. I've been thinking about this and come up with a romance hero who's also 'a very fine poet' (as the heroine's aunt informs her). He's in Elizabeth Bailey's Seventh Heaven. The heroine, Louisa, meets his poetry first:

    The voice was like liquid velvet, and it stopped Louisa in her tracks.

    "...endless days in ecstacy
    Of love, and hearts in harmony..."

    She paused in the doorway to the smaller of the two adjoining saloons, thrown open to accommodate the guests attending Mrs Wavertree's soirée.

    "In vain, and hoping endlessly,
    The knight in vigil ceaselessly ..."
    The owner of those velvety tones was standing outside her line of vision. But a bevy of females, apparently facing him, stood or sat rapt and dewy-eyed, in attitudes of drooping adoration.

    "... and donned his armour daringly,
    And rode - upon his death rode he!"

    Lady Louisa Shittlehope viewed the moonstruck auditors of this nauseously sentimental verse with astonishment, her eyes dancing and a bubble of mirth quivering in her throat. She was just wondering who the reciter of this appalling doggerel might be, when ....

    The poet, as it happens, is also dressed in an appropriately dashing clothes:

    She looked him over with interest, taking in the florid nature of his attire: silvered silk grey jacket over a crimson and cream striped waistcoat, only half buttoned, breaches of cream brocade, the whole somehow turned awry by the unbuttoned cuffs, the carelessly knotted fringed cravat and the unpowdered brown locks with strands escaping confinement and drifting on to the cheeks.
    "Very poetic!" Louisa remarked

    So far, he might seem rather like Fawnhope, but, it turns out, this poet is extremely aware of his pose, but it doesn't hide insincerity, as Bunthorne's does. Rather it's his way of dealing with his family's atrocious reputation. Oh, and he's a dashing and skilled swordsman too, but not at all Byronic. He does have some poems that he keeps secret and what I can't work out is whether these are really any better than the 'doggerel', or if it's just that Louisa's perception of it has changed, now that she's in love (and if so, is this because she now appreciates romantic topics more, or because love has addled her critical abilities?). I'll let you decide. Here's a bit of his love-poetry:

    "All eyes she seemed that night we met, blue eyes alight and twinkling;
    Of hearts surrendered up, as yet we neither had an inkling"

    "But this is of quite different quality!" ejaculated Louisa, interrupting suddenly.
    The poet grasped her hand and shook it to silence her as he resumed,

    "But lo! She crept, she snailed her way beneath my soul's defences;
    She lit the spark, and sailed away with all my tender senses."

    "Septimus, I had no idea," Louisa uttered in awed tones. "Why did you not tell me you could write like this?"