Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Spare me the happy endings

It’s more than I can resist to pass on the 200th anniversary of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ without taking the opportunity for a list of ‘romances most likely to stand the test of time’.

The first one is easy, because EM Forster’s ‘A Room with a View’ has long been a favourite of mine, particularly romantic because of its glorious Italian setting and as it’s survived its first 100 years of being in print, I can’t see it being any less readable in the next 100 years.

On return from a tour of Italy, Lucy Honeychurch gets engaged to the divine Cecil – a handsome man with a strong social position who offers both elevation and education. But fate throws her back into the path of George, whom she first met in Italy – a young man less hung up on social convention.

George works on the railways and he once stole a passionate kiss from Lucy on a picnic in Italy – a kiss that reverberates throughout the book, because it’s set in 1908 and passionate kisses are strictly off-limits.

Lucy must choose between George, with his modern outlook and attitudes, and the traditional desirable husband material in Cecil. There are great scenes of Italy, plenty of comic characters and it is a great ‘looking backwards and looking forwards’ novel that epitomises the changes happening at the turn of last century. And, of course there is That Kiss. Ahh.

Another fantastically romantic story to stand the test of time is Graham Greene’s ‘The End of the Affair’, a tautly told tale of Maurice Bendrix, who by chance, encounters the former lover he never got over. His determination to find out why she broke off their affair becomes an obsession, even hiring a private detective.

Of course what he discovers is not at all what he expected but is very Greene-esque. The scenes that have stayed with me are not of the ones between Bendrix and his lover, but between Bendrix and his lover’s husband – the man Bendrix once felt triumphant over becomes the only man he feels comfortable spending time with as their share the fact of having both lost her. Gloriously tragic.

Further terrific heart-wrenching is to be found in another classic, Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, where the lovers defy all social convention and with no hope of going back, sacrifice everything just to be together. Deeply romantic. But this is Russia – will Anna’s love for her dashing count be enough to withstand their exiled existence and impending war? Or will it all end horribly under a train?

If, like me, you think there is possibly nothing so romantic as a doomed romance with everyone sacrificing everything to be with the one you love then more recently there is Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’. Probably perfect. Never has the deep love of two people led to such a chain reaction of disaster and death. I was traumatised for at least a week after reading it.

We can't forget ‘Wuthering Heights’ – we are all doomed to madness and death. Terrific stuff that has also withstood the test of time.

But it doesn’t all have to be deep tragedy to be lasting. Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture the Castle’ is possibly best described as a bittersweet romance than a totally doomed one. It’s a fantastically fun tale of two impoverished sisters living in a dilapidated castle. When handsome, rich American heirs arrive the sisters make ridiculous mistakes trying to make a good impression and finding their feet with first romance.

The moment where one character has eloped with her man and throws open the window of the hotel and sings through pure joy is magical. But the one where a proposal of marriage is turned down because the man doesn’t love her in the wholehearted way she loves him is heartrending and show-stopping. Beautifully sad.

Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ also makes it onto my list. When a young paid companion is whisked away to the terribly glamorous world of Max de Winter her happiness is slowly but devastatingly undermined by the combination of his impossibly perfect first wife who died in tragic circumstance, and the fact that her memory is kept alive by the terrifying housekeeper, Mrs Danvers.

This is one of my favourite books – the way you are obligingly led to view everything in a certain way and the gradual realisation of what the story is really about, I found totally irresistible. One I just turned over and started again the moment I’d finished it.

I love all of Austen, probably because her heroines are all doomed to be architects of their own misfortune. Whether for your own amusement you help a young girl to be more marriageable only to find she’s about to steal the one you want for yourself, to accusing your beloved’s father of murdering his wife, her heroes all have to learn to love their heroines flaws and all. And such great flaws.

Almost the whole of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ appears to be about a doomed romance. It's edge-of-the-seat stuff because every time you read that book you are barely able to believe Darcy and Elizabeth will ever get together. 

The author sets up so many obstacles against their happiness – their dislike of each other, her awful family, his pride, her sister marrying his worst enemy, his role in destroying her sister’s happiness, his family’s stifling opposition against his marrying beneath him etc etc. It’s undoubtedly the eleventh-hour incredible turnaround of both character and circumstance that makes this such a popular and enduring story.

Is ‘Persuasion’ possibly even more romantic? Again, the social restrictions of the time that give this its poignancy and romance that are more difficult to recreate in a modern romance. When Captain Wentworth appears on the social scene, rich, heroic and successful there is flurry of womanly interest. But it breaks the heart of Anne, who followed her family’s advice years before and rejected his offer of marriage.

One of the most romantic scenes ever surely has to be where they are finally in the same room together and she is desperately trying to communicate that she still loves him, but they cannot talk, he can only sit in a corner and pour his heart out in a letter. Glorious stuff.You just wouldn’t get that today. 

If it is much easier to choose ‘romances most likely to stand the test of time’ from ones that have not only been in print for a good few years, but are set in times when there were far more reasons to keep the hero and heroine apart - where does that leave the romances of today?

Jefferey Eugenides ‘The Marriage Plot’ is a wonderful dissection of romance in the modern world. Set in the eighties its heroine is Madeleine, a scholar studying the romantic plots of classic English literature while also trying to navigate love in her own life. It’s not so much a romance as about the current state of romance. If choice is becoming limitless, then the biggest challenge is knowing what you want and finding the determination to stick with it.

And where does that leave romance where star-crossed lovers don’t suffer enormous hardship to be together, but can instead say; ‘I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you’ and find someone else with whom things might be a whole lot easier and simply start again? All those heroes in the past never chose the easy path.

How about John O’Farrell’s ‘The Man Who Forgot His Wife’, a modern and romantic story about a man who realises he’s already married to the person he wants to spend the rest of his life with – only it takes a catastrophic memory loss to realise it and then is in a race against time to stop his own divorce. A fantastic plot device to keep the hero and heroine apart. This one is also funny.

‘Bridget Jones Diary’ by Helen Fielding is worth a mention because it is credited with launching the whole genre of chick-lit with its modern, flawed heroine. 

It’s so of its time it’s quite possible to miss that it’s an extremely well done reworking of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, where Bridget’s pointed prejudice against the stuffy Mark Darcy leads her to believing every bad word his arch rival says against him, only to realise she’d been unutterably prejudiced and has ruined forever her chances of being with Mr Right.

I shall be interested to see what results from six authors commissioned to write updated version of Austen’s classics, the first of which will come out in the autumn. If we get another Bridget Jones out of it I will be happy.

You can’t really mention modern romantic fiction without Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’.  Not a personal favourite, but definitely makes it to my list of ‘romances likely to stand the test of time’. Maybe not the whole 200 years.

Again, is it the doomed nature of the romance that keeps you reading? The enormous sacrifices that have to be made – not just by the couple themselves, but of their families and wider community in order to keep a couple so obviously meant to be together, in each other’s arms. This time overcoming the drawback of being of a different species.

John Green’s ‘The Fault in our Stars’ is the very latest romance climbing up the bestseller lists with his heartbreaking story of love among cancer patients. Maybe it's the doomed nature of the romance which makes me think this might be one that stays in print for a good long time.

Is it worth even trying to have a meaningful romance with someone who you know is going to die any day? Or is your romance simply doomed from the outset? Or is that what makes it just so romantic?

You’d think in producing a list of romantic books you’d end up with a list of slightly more uplifting reads, but there you go. Surprising also the number of books written by men. Praise their romantic souls.

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