Inspired by all this controversy, I thought I'd take a look at the book which sparked all the outrage, namely Plato's Republic. It wasn't long before I came across an issue which, while dealt with only briefly in this passage from the Republic, is of vital importance to the romance genre. Cephalus, an elderly man, recalls
the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, How does love suit with age, Sophocles, --are you still the man you were? Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master. His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold. (Book I, Jowett translation)In both the classical period and in the Middle Ages, love was often seen as a form of madness:
The disease of love, according to medieval physicians, is a disorder of the mind and body, closely related to melancholia and potentially fatal if not treated. In their view, however, lovesickness did not afflict everyone alike: the sufferer was typically thought to be a noble man. (Wack 1990: xi)If lovesickness was generally thought to result in depression and melancholy in the Middle Ages,
that is not the way it is depicted in the majority of ancient literary texts. Lovesickness, displayed in a violent or manic fashion, receives descriptions in almost all of the periods of ancient literature.(Toohey 2004: 61)There were, however, believed to be different types of love - eros, philia and agape, and for a more detailed discussion of Plato's ideas on love see, for example, this entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
In Plato's Symposium it is explained that
love is always directed towards what is good, indeed that goodness itself is the only object of love. When we love something, we are really seeking to possess the goodness which is in it. Not temporarily of course, but permanently. And from there Plato gives his first definition of love: ‘Love is desire for the perpetual possession of the good.’ [...] But although all things love, and all men are in some sense lovers, few recognise the object of their love, that which motivates their striving, that which underlies their every desire, that which will ensure ‘perpetual possession’. This object Plato calls the Good or absolute beauty. (Amir 2001)We may recall that Frye wrote:
We may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitudeAccording to Frye, romances in the high mimetic mode come in for criticism because 'the interest in this sort of displaced myth “tends toward abstraction in character-drawing, and if we know no other canons than low mimetic ones, we complain of this.”' Could it be, then, that romances of this type, which are criticised for having stereotypical, unrealistic characters and plots, are in fact exploring love as the pursuit of 'the Good or absolute beauty'? To take as an example an old but important novel in the development of the genre, E. M. Hull's The Sheik, we find that the heroine, Diana Mayo (her very name recalls that of a goddess) is referred to as 'The divinity' (page 4) and one of her admirers exclaims that 'Beauty like yours drives a man mad' (page 7). In romances of the high mimetic type, the lovers are usually extremely beautiful/physically attractive, and intensely possessed of particular virtues (courage, in the case of Diana Mayo, humility and self sacrifice in the case of many other heroines, bravery in the case of many heroes). They are personifications of aspects of 'the Good' or 'absolute beauty'. Romances in the low mimetic mode, i.e. romances where the characters are more 'realistic' perhaps show how love can be compatible with daily living, without the lovers falling into the dangerous madness warned about by classical and medieval physicians.
Plato told stories, relating his ideas through the characters of Socrates and his interlocutors. Socrates is depicted using simple examples in order to approach philosophical truths, such as when he asks 'When horses are injured, are they improved or deteriorated?' during the dialogue regarding justice. It seems to me that this is not totally dissimilar to the way that romances, rather than discuss relationships or love in the abstract, ground their investigation into the causes and effects of love in a particular situation, so that it may be more easily understood by the reader.
I'd also like to take a closer look at old age, which was where we began when I quoted from the Republic. Do 'the passions relax their hold' in old age? And is this what is portrayed in the romance genre? I think it very often is, in the sense that the majority of romances portray young lovers. Sandy Oakes, for example, states that 'a romance works best when the experience is new—the younger hero and heroine falling in love for the first time'. But passion at an older age is not simply an issue affecting the characters within novels: it is also an issue which affects the perception of the romance readers, as explored in a recent At the Back Fence column at AAR, where Robin Uncapher commented that 'It’s not only younger people who find the idea of an older reader disconcerting. It’s all of us, including those of us who have passed that 40th birthday'. Michelle Buonfiglio articulated the unease that older readers can feel when they realise that they are feeling an attraction to a character who is much younger than they are: 'is it just plain creepy to think guys who are 10, 15, 20 years younger than I are sexy as hell?'. And although many romances only show passionate, romantic love between younger characters, there are some which feature older characters. Michelle mentions Candice Hern's Just One of Those Flings" which has as its hero 'an alpha younger man who's crazy about an older woman. Our heroine's got to convince herself that his attraction to her is real, not some fetish; that her desirablity transcends her age'. Age is also an issue in Jessica Hart’s Contracted: Corporate Wife. The heroine is divorced, and the mother of a fourteen-year-old girl and an eleven-year-old boy:
She was attractive enough, but she had to be at least forty-five, and it showed in the lines around her eyes.Patrick, the character making these observations, is himself ‘in his late forties’ (2005: 10). His opinion of Lou begins to change when she smiles:
That cool, composed look had never done anything for him, anyway. He liked his women more feminine, more appealing, less in control. And younger. (2005: 6).
Lou smiled up at the barman as he materialised out of the gloom, and Patrick’s hand froze in mid-tap as he felt a jolt of surprise. He hadn’t realised that she could smile like that.The double standard, which generally leads people to consider an age-gap more appropriate if the man is the older of the couple, is directly challenged by Lou:
She never smiled at him like that. [...] Not the warm, friendly smile she was giving the barman now, lighting her face and making her seem all at once attractive and approachable. (2005: 10)
The boy was clearly trying to impress Lou, Patrick thought disapprovingly, watching his attempts at banter. She had only smiled at him, for heaven’s sake. Anyone would think that she was hot, instead of nearly old enough to be his mother. Just what they needed, a barman with a Mrs Robinson fixation. [...] Patrick glowered at the barman’s departing back. ‘Thank God he’s gone. [...]’As Lou observes, Patrick’s girlfriends ‘look a good twenty years younger’ than him (2005: 12). She also acknowledges that ‘She was a middle-aged woman and it was well known that you became invisible after forty’ (2005: 12). Of course, this being a romance, Patrick eventually loses his arrogance and after that evening he starts to think of Lou in a new way.
‘I thought he was charming,’ said Lou, picking up her glass.
‘Don’t tell me you’ve got a taste for toy boys!’
‘No – not that it would be any business of yours if I did.’ [...]
‘You don’t think it would be a bit inappropriate?’ he countered.
Lou stared at him for a moment, then sipped at her champagne. ‘That sounds to me like a prime case of pots and kettles,’ she said coolly. (2005: 11)
Jennifer Crusie is another author who has written a romance about a heroine who is over forty. In Anyone But You, a forty-year-old heroine is paired with a thirty-year-old hero. The heroine's attempts to make her body into the ideal of female beauty are shown to be futile; this is not a novel in the high mimetic mode. Instead she realises that 'I wanted to give him a perfect body, and all he wanted was mine' (2006: 218).
- Amir, Lydia, 2001. 'Plato’s Theory of Love: Rationality as Passion', Practical Philosophy, November 2001, Volume 4.3: 6-14.
- Crusie, Jennifer, 2006. Anyone But You (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
- Hart, Jessica, 2005. Contracted, Corporate Wife (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
- Toohey, Peter, 2004. Melancholy, Love, and Time: Boundaries of the Self in Ancient Literature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).
- Wack, Mary Frances, 1990. Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The ‘Viaticum’ and its Commentaries, University of Pennsylvania Press, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania).