I won’t lie. I like romance. However, I like well-done romance, not poorly done romance. “Romance” technically refers to a literary genre popular in Medieval times. The classic story of a knight going on a quest is technically a romance story. Romanticism got a revival in the late 1700s/early 1800s. Authors of this time tended to add a Gothic edge to the story and include Byron, Poe, and the Shelleys. It’s a weird definition. The word “romance” does not tend to make people think of Frankenstein’s monster or a raven that may or may not be a hallucinatory metaphor. In modern usage, “romance” tends to be a story of “boy meets girl, love at first sight/hate at first sight, unforeseen obstacles and/or wacky hijinks, true love, happy ending/tragic ending.” Obviously there are a few variations to the story, but I think that captures the main ones depending on whether the romance is supposed to fall into the category of comedy, drama, or tragedy.
I shall discuss three romances, which I think fall into those general categories (I use “comedy” in a loose sense, in which the difference between comedy and tragedy is whether or not the characters die in the end). I shall also discuss why I like or dislike said romances and whether I think they’re well-done. This will help you get an idea of what kind of romance I’ll incorporate in my writing.
Tragedy – I start with this category because the most famous romance of all, Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. The story is older than Shakespeare; he plagiarized, I mean, borrowed the plot and re-worked it in his own style with a few new characters. If you are from the U.S. and went to high school, you are probably familiar with this play. It’s been adapted more times than I want to count and the basic story line is adapted into many more venues. I’m going to assume you know the story, so I’m not going to re-cap it here.
I HATE this story. I hate this more than Scrappy Doo. Somehow this story is held up as a paragon of young, true love. I vehemently disagree. I think Romeo and Juliet got what was coming to them for being so stupid. I am opposed to the idea of “love at first sight.” That doesn’t happen. People may be attracted to others at first sight, but love? No, infatuation is not love, and considering Romeo and Juliet decide they love each other in just one night, and also Romeo casts aside his previous “true love” Rosaline that same night, I think it’s pretty clear they were just infatuated with each other. Anyway, Romeo and Juliet also don’t exhibit the least modicum of common sense. Juliet decides to go along with Friar Laurence’s crazy “pretend you’re dead” plan instead of just running away to meet Romeo, or tell Paris that Friar Laurence already married her to Romeo. But Romeo and Juliet are two stupid kids. I’m not saying all teenagers are stupid; I’m just saying these two are. The real tragedy of this story to me is that Mercutio, who seemed to be the only person with any intelligence and wit, ended up dying. Speaking of dying, I don’t think dying for love is a particularly noble death and certainly not romantic (although by the 1800s definition, probably so). Dying to save someone else’s life, now that’s noble. Dying because you’re upset this girl you’re known for a week is dead, now that’s just stupid.
Drama – I’m moving on to this category because this story also falls squarely into the 1800s definition as discussed above. The story is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This has been adapted a few times, but is probably less well-known, so pardon a brief re-cap. Jane Eyre is a plain but intelligent and passionate unloved orphan. She survives a hard childhood to end up as a governess to Mr. Rochester (a rather Bryonic hero except he is in no way handsome). Despite their age differences, Jane and Mr. Rochester are intellectually well-matched and eventually fall in love. They are about to get married when Jane learns Mr. Rochester is already married to a violently insane woman who’s kept in the attic of his house. Jane runs away and finally collapses on the doorstep of the generous Rivers’ family. They nurse her back to health and eventually Jane learns the Rivers’ are her long-lost family and she inherits a small fortune. Her cousin St. John almost convinces her to marry him and go to India for missionary work, when she hears Rochester’s voice and goes back to him. The house is ruined and she finds out his crazy wife burned down the house and killed herself. Rochester lost a hand and his eyesight trying to save his crazy wife. Jane reunites with Rochester and they are married.
As I said, very 1800s with lots of drama and passion and Gothic elements. Part of the 1800s style of romance is the idea of people getting carried away by their emotions. There is a lot of melodrama (Rochester is, as a Byronic hero, moody and temperamental) and improbable coincidences (such as Jane collapsing on her long-lost family’s doorstep), which are not necessarily to my taste (I dislike the idea of fate dictating a character’s choice [another reason I dislike the famous “star-cross’d” lovers]). However, I like how Bronte wrote the story as a romance between intellectual equals. She writes Jane and Rochester deliberately as physically not attractive. It is the main characters’ personalities, intelligence, and opinions that bring them together. I like that kind of romance.
Comedy – Again, I’m using a loose sense of the word. The last story actually concerns several romances, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This novel has been adapted several times as well, so I’m going to assume that you know the story and dispense with the re-cap. Also, the characters inhabit a very small world (which seems to be a hallmark of modern cinematic romances) and I don’t want to try to parse all the relationships with one blog entry. I will include a brief breakdown of all the romances happening in the novel.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet – Austen makes it clear from the beginning this is a bad marriage. Mr. Bennet married a pretty woman who turned his head and later found out she’s rather silly, not well-mannered, and an aggressive social-climber.
Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley – The secondary romance of the novel. The two are portrayed as very physically attractive, very nice, but perhaps not the brightest bulbs in the lot.
Lydia Bennet and Mr. Wickham – Also a bad match. Lydia (her mother’s favorite daughter) is fooled by Wickham’s lies and unconcerned by scandal when she runs off with him. The only reason they get married is Mr. Darcy pays Wickham to marry Lydia to help the Bennet family avoid the scandal. However, since Lydia is as silly as her mother, it’s implied both of them get exactly what they deserve.
Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins – Charlotte is Elizabeth’s best friend who marries Mr. Collins, Elizabeth’s cousin, after Elizabeth rejects him. Elizabeth is upset Charlotte marries Mr. Collins because both of them had vowed not to get married just for the sake of it. But Charlotte is 27, which is quite the old maid at the time and running out of options for any sort of financial independence from her family. Worse still, Charlotte pretty much tells Elizabeth, “Yes, I know we’re not well suited for each other and he won’t make me happy, but I’ll figure out a way to make it work.”
Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy – the main romance of the story. Darcy is initially condescending to Elizabeth and her whole social class, so Elizabeth decides she doesn’t like him. Eventually her devotion to her sister and her wit and honesty impress him, and he starts to like her. She rejects him but he proves he’s really a better man than she thinks and eventually they realize they are in love and get married.
I think, despite the very small world they inhabit, that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have the most natural courtship. Mr. Darcy is a jerk in the beginning (if you haven’t read it, Mr. Bingley makes a remark that he should dance with Elizabeth because she’s pretty and Darcy replies, “Eh, not that pretty,” when Elizabeth is clearly sitting close enough to hear him!). I can’t blame Elizabeth for deciding she has no reason to be particularly nice to him, or impress him despite his fabulous wealth. This allows her to be honest in her opinions in their later encounters. Darcy is surprised and intrigued. He falls for Elizabeth before she falls for him. He proposes despite his aunt’s objections. Elizabeth eventually softens and after he puts some things right, she accepts him.
Conclusion – So there you go. I think Romeo and Juliet were stupid (and by extension love stories that emulate Romeo and Juliet are stupid). I think Jane and Rochester was a romance of intellectuals. And I think Elizabeth and Darcy was just a good romance (of the “hate at first sight” type). I’m not a romantic idealist. Love is a many splendored thing, yes, but it is not an emotion that has a value of “true” or “false.” There is no destiny or soulmates. People fall in love and fall out of love all the time. The how and why is a mystery and that seems to me to be a better source of romance than two people who are “destined” for each other. The best romances, to me, show that people are just people and they have flaws and make mistakes and but eventually they figure it out.