Monday, September 11, 2006

And Death Shall Have No Dominion

This subject seemed appropriate given today’s date, and maybe it was inevitable that I’d eventually work my way round to a discussion of death, given my academic background, but I’d been reading romances and not thinking about it at all when suddenly I realised that I’d read quite a few romances recently where characters are recently bereaved and/or still dealing with the effects of bereavement, and where the consequences of bereavement are dealt with in much more depth than the ‘our heroine is an orphan because that narrows down the cast-list and makes her vulnerable’, the ‘our heroine is a virgin widow’ or the ‘our hero’s wife died but only after she’d made him cynical about all women’ plotlines. I’m not saying that these plots are bad, simply that they don’t dwell in any depth on what it’s like to deal with a bereavement. There are, however, plenty of romances in which the effect of the death of a loved one is dealt with in considerable detail.

When the deceased was the hero or heroine’s spouse, he or she sometimes appears as a ghost or vision, as in Linda Lael Miller’s Wild About Harry. Here the heroine’s dead husband suddenly makes his presence felt:
“If I’m not one can short of a six-pack, how come I’m seeing somebody who’s been dead for two years?”
Tyler winced. “Don’t use that word,” he said. “People don’t really die, they just change.” (2000: 12)
He urges her to remarry:
“Harry’s the man for you.”
You were the man for me,” Amy argued, and this time a tear escaped and slipped down her cheek.
[...] “That was then, Spud,” he said, his voice gruff with emotion. “Harry’s now.” (2000: 13)
The approbation of the much-loved, but now deceased spouse doesn’t always occur in such a dramatic fashion. At the end of Karen Templeton’s Swept Away, just after Carly, the heroine has agreed to marry the widowed Sam, he winks at his daughter, Libby, and when Libby ‘looked over at her mother’s photo on her desk, she could have sworn she saw Mama wink, too.’ (2006: 249).

Not all romances dealing with this issue include a sign from beyond the grave which signifies the deceased’s approval for the match. In Elizabeth Bailey’s Seventh Heaven the heroine had an arranged first marriage, which though not unaffectionate, was never loving. There is, nonetheless, a short discussion of how the heroine’s first husband would have felt about her remarriage. She jokingly suggests that she must marry Septimus, the hero, because he, a poet, requires a patron:
“A poet needs a patron, does he not? And it is high time you ceased to waste your very considerable talent on – on gruesome tales or whatever it is.” [...]
“And do you suppose Mr Shittlehope [Louisa’s first husband] would have approved of your sponsoring the arts?”
“Well, he liked me to play the pianoforte,” Louisa offered.
“Then that is settled. You may marry me with a clear conscience!” (296-297).
Clearly this particular example of a discussion about the deceased and his/her wishes is lighthearted, but it nonetheless shows the characters’ need to consider the possible feelings of the deceased. Even in cases such as Louisa’s, the assumed approval of the deceased gives a certain extra legitimacy to the new relationship and demonstrates that the dead are not forgotten.

Given that romances not infrequently suggest that there is one Mr or Ms Right, with heroines often waiting, in a virginal state, for the one man who can ‘awaken’ them, the situation of a hero or heroine who has had one true love, and is now embarking on a second marriage, with a second true love, raises questions about fidelity. Perhaps some readers would feel that a remarriage is a form of disloyalty, infidelity, or an indication that the first marriage was not one of ‘true love’. The widowed father of the heroine in Templeton’s Swept Away says of bereavement after the death of a spouse that ‘I’ve never really bought into the idea that staying lonely somehow honored the person who’d gone on’ (2006: 113), but the idea itself is implied to be one which is prevalent in society and it’s one which seems to trouble a fair number of romance widows and widowers. The supernatural approbation of the deceased is, therefore, clear evidence of the rightness of the new marriage, removing all possibility of guilt or shame on the part of the new couple.

In Claire Thornton’s Raven’s Honour, the characters receive no supernatural sign, and for a time Major Cole Raven, the hero, is wracked by guilt because he’d loved Honor, the heroine, for years, despite the fact that she was married to one of the soldiers under his command. Although he never let her know his feelings, and despite the fact that he did all he could to keep Patrick O’Donnell alive, he nonetheless feels guilty about Patrick’s death. Honor, not knowing how Cole feels about her, mentions the story of Bathsheba and King David, and Cole's responds angrily:
‘You think I’m the kind of man who could order another man to his certain death – just so I could take his woman?’ Raven demanded, his voice low and throbbing with outrage. [...] The Old Testament story of the King’s sinful action had never been far from Cole’s mind over the past few weeks. So Honor’s accusation had cut like a whiplash across his already tormented conscience, laying bare his guilt. (2002: 63-65)
In this biblical story King David’s guilt derives from the fact that he was responsible for the death of Bathsheba’s husband, but guilt can also arise from the feeling that one is benefiting from another’s death, or from the bereaved spouse’s sense that they should remain faithful to the deceased’s memory. The presence in romances of the deceased, who appear as spiritual or supernatural presences, perhaps remind us of the words of Jesus when asked about the status in the afterlife of a woman who during her lifetime had had seven husbands:
Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her.
Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.
For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. (Matthew 22: 28-30)
The dead cannot marry or be married, and therefore the living spouse is not committing adultery when he or she begins a new relationship. For those to whom no supernatural beings or signs appear, they must find other ways in which to come to terms with the past and assuage their guilt. In Raven’s Honour, for example, it becomes clear to Cole, and to the reader, that Patrick married Honor to protect her, and in his final words to Cole, ‘Take care of Honor, sir’ (2002: 34) he passed that responsibility on to Cole. In the novel it is demonstrated that Honor and Cole need feel no guilt, because neither betrayed Patrick. Rather, Cole is respecting Patrick’s final wishes by caring for Honor, and Honor, by returning home to ‘make peace with your mother’ (2002: 38), as Patrick had asked her to do, and laying out his corpse for burial does ‘ “Her last duty”, said Joe. [...] “No one could have asked more of her than that – not Patrick O’Donnell, at any rate”’ (2002: 40). Among Patrick’s final words to Honor were ‘You’re a good wife’ (2002: 38). By giving us these details about Patrick and Honor’s marriage, and showing Honor and Cole behaving honourably with regards to Patrick’s wishes, Thornton convinces the reader, and allows the hero and heroine to become convinced themselves, that they need not feel any guilt. It is also noticeable that Patrick continues to be mentioned throughout the book because he’s an integral part of Honor’s life, and Cole cannot understand Honor’s past without learning more about Patrick.

While the remembering of the dead is not emphasised in Raven’s Honour, it is an important theme in many of the books I’ve read recently. For example, in Karen Templeton’s Swept Away the hero, who’s been a widower for three years, explains his feelings about his dead wife:
“You still miss your wife too, don’t you?”
Sam took his time before answering. “One day, I realized I’d gotten through a whole hour without thinking about her. And at first I thought something was wrong with me, that somehow, it didn’t seem right not to hurt, not when you loved somebody as much as I’d loved her. Then, when the hour stretched to two, then sometimes even half a day, it finally began to sink in that missing somebody implies a vacuum of some kind, a hole in your life where this person used to be. And I thought, hell – after all those years we’d had together...’ He shook his head. “All these kids, each one of ‘em reminding me of her in some way. [....] It was Jeannie’s idea, painting the walls all those bright colors. The snowball bush out front, the lilac over there in front of the kitchen window, the row of cherry trees over there ... all her doing.”
With a gentle smile, he turned to Carly. “I suppose some people would find all those reminders painful. But I find ‘em a comfort. After all, it’s kinda hard to miss somebody who’s everywhere I look.” (2006: 69)
Unlike the dead characters in Sartre’s Huis Clos, condemned to Hell and to be forgotten by those who had once known and loved them, in romances the memories of the beloved dead are cherished and kept alive. In Miller’s Wild About Harry, Tyler’s mother says that ‘When you love someone, they leave a lasting imprint on your world’ (2000: 175). In Marion Lennox’s Princess of Convenience, the heroine’s son died of leukemia just three months before the beginning of the novel:
‘You don’t recuperate from a child’s death,’ she whispered, and she couldn’t stop the sudden flash of anger. ‘But that’s what they all said. You go overseas and forget, they told me. Start again. How can I start again? Why would I want to?
‘Like me,’ he said softly and her eyes flew to his. ‘Only harder.’
‘What ... what do you mean?
‘I believed them,’ he told her, his voice gentling. ‘Or maybe, like you, they just wore me down by repeating their mantra and I hoped like hell they were right.’ [...]
‘You’ve lost someone, too?’ she whispered, though she already knew the answer.
‘My twin. My sister. Lisle.’ (2005: 66)
In the course of the novel, however, they do both recuperate, and in part this is because they realise that recuperating does not have to involve either forgetting or starting again. In the final scene, the family gather together in the kitchen garden, while a priest says a blessing over the ashes of Dominic (the heroine’s son) and Lisle (the hero’s sister):
This kitchen garden was no formal garden. It was used every day, by everyone who lived in this castle. Edouard played here with his baby alpacas [....]. The servants gossiped here. Louise and Henri sat and held hands and watched Edouard play. Raoul and Jess sat here in the moonlight. And soon... In not so many months, maybe there’d be a crib out here, where a little one could have a daily dose of sun.
Home. Home is where the heart is, Jess thought dreamily. Home is here. [...]
They lifted their urns and they let the ash drift across the garden on the soft see breeze to land where it would.
The urns were empty. Jess turned and she held her husband tight, and once again she shed tears. But this time there was no desolation.
This was right.
Lisle and Dominic had come home.
With their families. (2005: 186-187)
Romance novels conclude with an ‘Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending’: often they demonstrate that love triumphs even over death. In the words of Cousin Geillis, a white witch, and relative of the heroine of Mary Stewart’s Thornyhold, writing in a message composed before her death, but delivered after it,‘‘Love is foreseen from the beginning, and outlasts the end’ (1989: 222), or, as Dylan Thomas said:
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
  • Bailey, Elizabeth, 2001. ‘Seventh Heaven’ in Elizabeth Bailey: Three Stories in One (Chatswood, New South Wales: Harlequin Mills & Boon), pp. 7-299.
  • Lennox, Marion, 2005. Princess of Convenience (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd.).
  • Miller, Linda Lael, 2000. Wild About Harry (Richmond, Surrey: MIRA Books).
  • Stewart, Mary, 1989. Thornyhold (Sevenoaks, Kent: Coronet Books, Hodder and Stoughton).
  • Templeton, Karen, 2006. Swept Away (Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette Books).
  • Thornton, Claire, 2002. Raven’s Honour (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd.).


  1. I could think of no reading I had done that would be pertinent to this topic (except, of course, the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon in which Claire must deal with the "death-not-yet-birth" of her husband Frank when she goes back in time the first time; the supposed death of Jamie after Culloden; the real death of then-estranged Frank; the loss of a baby daughter, then the loss of her grown daughter when she goes back in time again -- those books are all about the timelessness of love and how you can love many people in a lifetime), but as I was sitting in a talk about the public expressions of mourning, I suddenly remembered one of my all-time favorite movies deals with this subject: Truly, Madly, Deeply

    At the beginning of the film, Nina (Juliet Stevenson) has lost her husband Jamie (Alan Rickman)and her inability to deal with her grief and the wreck of a new house seems to draw him back into the world of the living. She is overjoyed at having him back again, even as a ghost, but slowly he begins to remind her of all the things he did that drove her crazy when he was alive. And he keeps bringing other ghosts home with him. Gradually, Nina begins to realize that she has to let Jamie go if she's ever going to join the world of the living again. When she meets a new man, she begins to see that she can't entomb herself away with Jamie because there are other people that love her too. She doesn't love Jamie any less, but life without him can still be bearable.

    It is funny, sad, wonderful movie worthy of three or four tissues, and I love Juliet Stevenson. I always picture Claire from the Outlander series as looking exactly like her.

  2. I really enjoyed Truly, Madly, Deeply too. It was interesting how she was cutting herself off from life, and so he came back and showed her that, albeit not physically present, he was having a much more sociable life than she was. And it does very much share the theme I was discussing of the departed partner giving the living one permission to get on with life and loving.