The greatest problem with the romantic heroes of fiction is that they are so little like the ordinary men we meet every day. Part of this might be because the great romantic heroes of fiction were penned before the Second--nay, the First--World War.
But even as products of their age, the romantic heroes of fiction must have been different from real-life men, for the romantic heroes of fiction seem always to be encouraging women in their ambitions and aspirations, but if history is anything to go by, it would seem that real-life men of previous centuries were constantly spooked by women's ambitions and aspirations and wished we would just settle down and bake pies more often.
It leads me to think that the creators of the romantic heroes of fiction were not, then, reporting on men as they are but as men as imaginative women wish they would be, and that this was spiritually akin to those male cartoonists who draw female super-heroes with 16 inch waists and 44 inch breasts.
The defining feature of Mr Big of "Sex and the City" was, from the very beginning, his fortune: "a young Trump" as Samantha described him to his future third wife.
But earlier romantic heroes were not described in such crass terms. I think the most beloved romantic heroes of my youth--beyond Frodo, who was certainly a "safe" crush object for an eight-year old--were Gilbert Blythe, a Canadian farm boy who became a village doctor, and before him Theodore "Laurie" Lawrence, "the boy next door" to the March sisters. Why none--let alone not all--of those March girls fell in love with him until the youngest had grown up is a mystery to me--or would be if I hadn't figured out that real life doesn't make for great fiction. Lord Peter Wimsey came into my life later and almost ruined it.
Gilbert Blythe and Lord Peter Wimsey are dangerous heroes because they are men who do not take "No" for an answer. The successful love stories of Anne of Green Gables and of Harriet Vane suggest that women are wrong to reject those men who adore them and that eventually we should "grow up" and accept them. However, the reason Anne and Harriet are made to reject their suitors for years is because this is necessary to sustain the dramatic tension of their stories. The appropriate response to a man who hangs around for years hoping to marry you is not to give in and marry him but to tell him to scram.
Incidentally, it is important for those who hope their lives turn out like Anne's or Harriet's to understand that the female creators of both women had miserable marriages. The husband of Lucy Maud Montgomery suffered from terrible depression, and one of LMM's descendents claims that LMM committed suicide. The husband of Dorothy L. Sayers suffered from the shell-shock he had contracted in the Great War and was envious of her success. His saving grace was apparently that he liked to cook and DLS liked to eat.
Ironically, the first woman novelist to completely send up the notion of the romantic hero was one of the greatest of them all. With Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen makes fun of all the conventions of the romantic novel. Her romantic hero is not very romantic at all; he does little but banter with and tease the heroine. His regard for her is based, we discover, on discerning her very great regard for him and being flattered. As for Pride and Prejudice, I am not convinced that Lizzie and Darcy had an entirely happy marriage, thanks to a rather chilling line at the end about Darcy not having learned yet to laugh at himself. Would he ever?
But there is no point in asking that because a book is a book, and once you get to the end-papers, it is a waste of time to speculate.
I realize I may be ruffling feathers again in my dismissive attitude towards literature, so I will again trot out all my credentials again. I have a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature, and I have written thousands upon thousands of words of fiction, 65,000 of which will be published by Ignatius Press next year. My attitude towards literature is that of a wine fancier who has seen too many drunks. I am like the food critic in Ratatouille who rarely eats because he loves food too much.
I think romantic fiction can blight lives, and so it is very important for us to keep in mind that the rules that govern the writing of fiction--like suspense--are not the rules that govern real life. To this I will add a note about love. A very bitter woman once told me that there was no such thing as romantic love and it was just a lie of romantic novelists. This is not true. There is such a thing as romantic love. It can be killed, of course, but it can also be nurtured into something that will warm and support you for decades.
Could you take a moment to write in the combox the romantic hero that you have fallen most in love with, what is right with him and what, in your opinion, is most misleading about him in terms of real life?