I borrowed that line from W. H. Auden
but it's something I've been pondering recently, in part because I've recently come across quite a few comments about, and descriptions of, love, but also because "The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance is dedicated to fostering and promoting the scholarly exploration of all popular representations of romantic love." My research has tended to focus on some of the texts which make up a genre which is defined by the centrality of romantic love, and I only occasionally want to focus my analysis on the "representations of romantic love" in those texts. Today, although I would like to discuss "romantic love," but none of the texts which have made me think about the nature of romantic love recently were romance novels.
Lazaraspaste's blog, That Bitch Goddess, Love, takes its name "from a William James quote from a letter to H.G. Wells. Love is far more of a bitch than success ever could be" and she
postulate[s] three kinds of pairings off:I suppose the relationship between Harry Smith, a Brigade Major during the Peninsular war, and his wife Juana, might fall into the third category, and he certainly distinguishes it from other marriages (which I suppose one could place in the first category). Here he's describing his reaction on being told that Juana (from whom he'd been parted for a few months, while he was posted to fight in America, and she stayed in London) is well:
1. Looks Like It’s About Time I Got Married and Bred [...]
2. Companions in Mind Boggling Dysfunction [...]
3. The Companionate Marriage Which hardly ever happens and even when it does, it can look from the outside like either #1 or #2 depending on the day
It is difficult to decide whether excess of joy or of grief is the most difficult to bear; but seven years' fields of blood had not seared my heart or blunted my naturally very acute feelings, and I burst into a flood of tears. "Oh, thank Almighty God." Soon I was in Panton Square, with my hand on the window of the coach, looking for the number, when I heard a shriek, "Oh Dios, la mano de mi Enrique!"1 Never shall I forget that shriek; never shall I forget the effusion of our gratitude to God, as we held each other in an embrace of love few can ever have known, cemented by every peculiarity of our union and the eventful scenes of our lives. Oh! you who enter into holy wedlock for the sake of connexions–tame, cool, amiable, good, I admit–you cannot feel what we did. That moment of our lives was worth the whole of your apathetic ones for years. We were unbounded in love for each other, and in gratitude to God for all His mercies. (from Harry Smith's autobiography)Harry certainly seemed to think that his love for Juana was of a special and rare kind, but I wonder how many people think that the romantic love they're experiencing is boring and commonplace? Is the perception of uniqueness something induced by the experience of romantic love itself, or is it an accurate and realistic perception? Is this kind of marriage rare?
Lazaraspaste also writes that
The truth is that because love requires an upheaval both of social norms and personal comfort, that to love anyone, whether beloved or friend, mother or child, neighbor or enemy, is an act so difficult that the cynical are justified in questioning if love is even possible.I can see how sometimes love "requires an upheaval both of social norms and personal comfort" but I don't think this can be the case for everyone, every time they fall in love in a category 3 kind of way. Over at Read React Review, though, a comment by Janine seemed to suggest that at the very least falling in love causes upheaval for the person doing the falling:
To me “Alpha and Omega” was all about the scary aspect of falling in love. I find falling in love frightening in real life, because one doesn’t know the other person well yet in the falling in love stage of relationships, and yet that person has become so important to me, so much the center of my world. Should I trust them? Should I trust my feelings for them? Where do these sudden, powerful feelings come from? Will they ever go away? Do I want them to go away? Do I want this other person to go away, or will I feel like dying if they ever leave me?Does everyone find falling in love frightening? I have the impression that a lot of romance heroes do, because they fear commitment, but perhaps this may be because many of them fall in love deeply, all at once, and fear that once in it's too late to get out, because "Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds" (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116). Friends-to-lovers storylines, however, would tend to suggest the possibility that romantic love can develop gradually, between people who do know each other well, and so their love does change, from the love of friends to romantic love.
For me, that is what falling in love feels like
In addition to differing accounts of the process of falling in love, we can have very different protagonists. Harry Smith's autobiography was published posthumously in 1903 but Juana was only fourteen at the time of her marriage in 1812, which may shock and horrify many modern readers of her story, but at the time she would have been deemed old enough: "In the UK, the age of sexual consent for women has been set at 16 since 1885, when campaigners fought to raise it from 13 to prevent child prostitution" (BBC). Their story (which forms a very significant portion of Georgette Heyer's The Spanish Bride) might therefore seem unromantic to many modern readers, but Harry writes that when he first saw her she "inspired me with a maddening love which, from that period to this (now thirty-three years), has never abated under many and the most trying circumstances" (Chapter 8). His experience seems in stark contrast to comments I've seen on romance blogs which state that the happy endings for teenage heroines seem unrealistic. According to figures given at Dear Author (but I have no idea where they got them from), "The average age of heroine in U.S. romance novels is between 24-26 (and possibly younger in historical romance)." My impression is that heroes tend to be older than heroines. If there are certain age-ranges at which it is deemed most appropriate for heroes and heroines to find true love and which make their happy endings more believable, I wonder what the reasons are behind them. Is it possible that some readers feel that teenagers will alter too much for their love not to alter too?
And once a couple has discovered that their love is mutual and there are no impediments to them expressing that love, how should they behave towards, and feel about, each other? Again, there are differing opinions. Here's James Cobham in Steven Brust and Emma Bull's Freedom & Necessity, writing to his lover, Susan:
My companionship with you, my Goddess, seems to be as much a state of ethical house-cleaning as it is an exaltation of the spirit and a carnival of the body. Do you doubt the last two? Never doubt them. You are the fire in my nerves and blood; the heat and smoke of that burning tempers my courage and clears my vision, until I feel almost that I can see into this solid world to its theoretical bones, the shape theology calls its soul. This is the first experience of my life that makes me question what I have always believed: that death stops everything that we are, and uncreates us down to the last atom. This one thing, my feeling for you, seems too large and strong to be extinguished by the mere breaking of the box of flesh and bone that holds it. If anything is left of me after the end of my life, it will be this.Again, there seems to be a comparison being made here between what the lover feels and Lazaraspaste's Type 1 relationship. And although I've not seen it phrased that way before, the idea of the beloved encouraging "ethical house-cleaning" isn't uncommon in romances, either, since so many heroic romance rakes are redeemed/reformed by love. James continues, however, by rejecting several popular ideas about romantic love
There is, I think, an assumption that romantic love is universal, and the entitlement of every human being. If what I feel for you is romantic love, I am inclined to doubt the assumption, or at least its definitions. Or is love properly defined as the urge to mate, marry, and procreate, and this staggering experience of mine something else, an uncommon frame for those things, bearing some other name? (513)
How can I explain this? You are not an extension of myself; a pen is an extension of myself, having life only because I've picked it up, passive, unmoving unless moved. You are not my mirror; are there people who want to look at their lovers and see nothing but themselves? You are not my conscience, my muse, or the sanctifying angel of my hearth - don't laugh, Susan, you've read that kind of nonsense in the penny-press, too. [...] No, I can't explain it, other than to say that I'm required to deal with you as I would like to deserve to be dealt with. (514-15)James' final sentence seems to offer a remarkably gender-free and egalitarian ideal of their relationship, which is keeping with both his philosophical and political leanings, and Susan's objection to marriage: she has told him that she has "no intention of marrying [...] You've concerned yourself in the cause of freedom in this country. You hate slavery. Do you know the laws regarding marriage in England? [...] Some of them are not in the husband's power to ignore" (233).
Christopher Stasheff, in The Warlock Enraged, offers no critique of the institution of marriage, and traditional gender roles don't seem to be challenged to any great extent in the fictional universe he's created, where even the types of magic witches and warlocks can perform is governed by their biological sex,2 but he does offer an even stronger rejection of the idea that the beloved should be a sort of "conscience." Rod Gallowglass and his wife Gwen have been married for a number of years, and have four children together, but Rod is still negotiating his relationship with her:
Rod said slowly, "[...] I've always felt Rod Gallowglass is an even better thing to be, when he's with his wife Gwen."So, after all that I'm feeling a bit daunted, lest my feelings of love aren't exceptional, exalted, unselfish, frightening, independent, companionate etc enough. Is anyone else feeling brave enough to try to tell me the the truth about love?
"Thy wife?" Simon frowned. "That hath a ring of great wrongness to it. Nay, Lord Warlock - an thou dost rely on another person for thy sense of worth, thou dost not truly believe that thou hast any. Thou shouldst enjoy her company because she is herself, and is pleasing to thee, is agreeable company - not because she is a part of thee, nor because the two of thee together make thy self a worthwhile thing to be." (232)
- Brust, Steven and Emma Bull. Freedom & Necessity. New York: Tor, 1997.
- Smith, Harry. The Autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith, Baronet of Aliwal on the Sutlej G. C. B.. Ed. G. C. Moore Smith. London: John Murray, 1903. Online edition published by the Online Books Page at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Stasheff, Christopher. The Warlock In Spite of Himself. 1969. London: Granada, 1982.
- Stasheff, Christopher. The Warlock Enraged. New York: Ace, 1985.
1 This can be translated as "Oh God, my Harry's hand!"
2 As Rod discovered in the first book in the series, both witches and warlocks can
'[...] wish ourselves to places that we know. All the boys can fly; the girls cannot.'
Sex-linked gene, Rod thought. Aloud, he said, 'That's why they ride broomsticks?'
'Aye. Theirs is the power to make lifeless objects do their bidding. We males cannot.'
'Aha! Another linkage. Telekinesis went with the Y-chromosomes, levitation with the X.
But they could all teleport. And read minds. (93)