Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hidden Treasure and Convenient Arrangements

Last night I read a couple of books and the contrast between them got me thinking about the relationship between the plot of a romance, and the type of love-story it is. In other words, it seems to me that often the plot becomes a metaphor for the protagonists' experience of love. For example, some romances are road-stories, with the two characters travelling somewhere. As they travel, they discover not only new places and new landscapes, but also new things about each other, and usually once they reach their destination (or soon after) they realise that they've reached a romantic destination too, and their love is mutual.

The first romance I read last night was June Drummond's The Meddlers, about a rake who's facing ruin, having been left with huge debts by his now-deceased father. It's proposed (by one of the meddlers of the title) that he marry his rich neighbour, Kate, a young woman whom he's known all his life, but he refuses since he doesn't want to be thought of as a fortune-hunter, and besides, he's known her since she was a little girl. She proposes instead that they should hunt for another fortune, an ancient treasure buried on his land, and she hopes that the reward the Crown will pay for its recovery will be sufficient to pay off the debt. As a result, there's a lot of travelling around, discovering historical clues, but what also becomes clear is that Dominic, the hero, has hidden layers just like the layers of Roman, Danish, medieval and subsequent history that lie beneath the fields of his estate. The treasure may be found by digging, but the depths of Dominic's character are only exposed by love:
Lady Letitia [Dominic's mother] gazed thoughtfully at his rigid back. Though he had always shown her love and tenderness, she was aware that he had the reputation of being cold-hearted and arrogant. The careless indifference he displayed to those outside his own intimate circle had caused her many a sleepless night.
Today she saw him in a different light, his hurt made plain, his self-blame and regret beyond doubt. She did not have to look far for the cause of this change. Her rakehellion son had a last fallen in love. (2004: 239)
Dominic himself comes to realise that the true treasure is Kate: 'I knew that you're more precious to me than any treasure' (2004: 294). He has to dig beneath the surface impression of Kate that his memories gave him, and look at her as she really is:
If he remembered Kate at all, it was as a thin little snip of a child with a tangle of beech-brown hair. [...] He imagined Miss Safford must have grown up meek-mannered, malleable, and dull.
Over the past few weeks [as they've been travelling together, trying to find clues to the location of the treasure] he had found this image to be very wide of the mark. Kate was possessed of a strong will, independent views, and a lively imagination. She was brave, honest, and loyal to her friends. [...] But that was not all. He was discovering in Kate a delightful companion, with a sense of humour that matched his own. (2004: 208: 209, my emphasis).
The plot, which involves the protagonists in detailed historical research, and travels to seek the advice of authorities in the field, is paralleled by their gradual 'research' into each other, with the developing relationship encouraged by the 'authorities' in this field, the 'meddlers', or adults who have known them all their lives and who think they are perfect for each other. This metaphor is of love as something which is gradually revealed, and which is based on evidence of compatibility and good character.

The second book I read had a very different plot. In Leigh Michaels' The Corporate Marriage Campaign, the hero, Trey, asks the heroine, Darcy, to pose as his fiancée as part of an advertising campaign for the department store he runs and part-owns. This reminded me of the many other 'fake fiancée' or 'fake wife' scenarios I've read, and also of many of the arranged marriage plots. What tends to happen is that, as here, the protagonists are wary of love. They maybe don't trust it because they've been hurt in the past, so they decide to have a business arrangement, but then, while they thought they were 'just playing the game. [...] Throwing yourself into the role, for the sake of the public image' (2005: 182), it becomes real. These plots, it seems to me, are acknowledging that many people are cynical about love. The characters are a bit like Scrooge, who doesn't believe in Christmas. The plot forces the characters to reverse their opinions so that they do believe in love. They have to have faith in something intangible, that other people are sure doesn't exist, rather like Scrooge, who comes to believe in the Christmas spirit(s), or the audience of a performance of Peter Pan, who have to shout out their belief in fairies when Tinkerbell is lying ill and dying:
she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies.
Peter flung out his arms. There were no children there, and it was night time; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls in their nighties, and naked papooses in their baskets hung from trees.
"Do you believe?" he cried.
Tink sat up in bed almost briskly to listen to her fate.
She fancied she heard answers in the affirmative, and then again she wasn't sure.
"What do you think?" she asked Peter.
"If you believe," he shouted to them, "clap your hands; don't let Tink die."
Many clapped. (Peter Pan)
It reminds me of something Crusie wrote, about why she writes romance:
even though I have seen the relationships of famous people crash and burn, even though I have seen the relationships of my friends crash and burn, even though I have seen my own relationships crash and burn (oh, Lord, let me count the ways), I truly do still believe in the existence of unconditional love, I still believe that it’s what holds humanity together, and I absolutely believe it’s the best of all possible things to write about. (1999: 226)
The story of a fake relationship which becomes real, against all the odds, is saying that, despite high divorce rates, despite all the cynicism, real love does still exist.

Crusie, Jennifer, 1999. ‘Why I Occasionally Think About Not Writing Romance Any More/Why I Know I’ll Continue to Write Romance Until They Pry My Cold Dead Fingers from Around My Keyboard’ in North American Romance Writers, ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press), pp. 223-226.

Drummond, June, 2004. The Meddlers (Bath: Chivers/Thorndike).

Michaels, Leigh, 2005. The Corporate Marriage Campaign (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon).

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