Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Romantic Heroes

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?


aussie girl in australia said...

I always had a fascination for the "diamond in the rough". The man who seemed rather unkind or unpleasant but who turned out to be the very best of men.

For instance, Captain Von Trapp was one of my first crushes. I know he is not a hero of Eng Lit but I believe he is in the genre of romantic hero. He seemed to be gruff and unkind but then we find that he is good and loyal and totally in love with Maria. She helps him become a good father again!

Another was John Brooks, Laurie's tutor. He too seemed very stuffy and not much fun - but he too turned out to be good and reliable and a wonderful husband. I used to re-read the stories of Meg's early married days again and again.

The problem with loving these characters is that in real life, men who seem gruff and unkind often actually are that way. And hoping to find a diamond in the rough can lead one to many dead ends.

Now I am engaged to a man who is neither gruff or unkind. He is however very shy so I still feel I have uncovered a diamond.

aussie girl in australia

PS - I'm getting married in 38 days! I know it is of topic but I am very excited and keep telling any one who'll listen.

Domestic Diva said...

I must admit that Gilbert Blythe was and remains my romantic hero...not because he keeps hanging around hoping Anne will finally take him, but because of the way their friendship matures into love. I also love that he has self-respect & self-restraint. He tests the waters with Anne, and doesn't push her where she doesn't want to go (until his ill-fated proposal). Whenever she rejects him, he finds some other girl to pay attention to. He tries to make himself worthy of her. The fateful proposal excepted, it seems to me that he embodies a great deal of what a gentleman SHOULD be for a lady. My own father, certainly imperfect, was and is much like Gilbert. My mom, unlike Anne, recognized the gem that he was and accepted his (first and only) marriage proposal almost before he asked. Their relationship has been a story of love & friendship always maturing & deepening.
The problem (in my experience) is that self-respecting men, having had their proposal of marriage rejected, move on for good. They generally aren't available later. If they keep hanging around, they aren't usually self-respecting but whipped puppies. LMM had a great sense of what made good literature, but combining "self-respect" and "keeps hoping for what has been told can never be" just isn't realistic.

RMVB said...

Captain Von Trapp was, very honestly, my first recognizable crush as a child, just to share with the above comments:)
My favorite romantic hero of literature is, (dare I say it?), Remus Lupin from Harry Potter. (I'm dating my silly youth here). He was a loyal, kind man who treated even his enemies with respect, and especially the children he worked with rather than writing them off as silly noneties. Also, his life turned out to be wrought with fear and shame in himself, yet he again and again overcame it to be the man he knew he should be - a husband to the woman he loved and a father. Which seemed to take more guts for him than fighting off vicious Death Eaters.
I can't say I immediately see what might be misleading about him other than the fact that he is a werewolf. Perhaps some other reader has ideas?

Seraphic said...

Ah, didn't Lupin have a number of noble reasons why he didn't want to marry the much-younger Nymphadora Tonks? Ah yes. "Too old, too poor, too dangerous."

Fiddlesticks. Old, poor, sickly men have no problem marrying the delightful young things who fall in love with them IF THEY fall in love with THEM. Maybe such men will be reluctant to pursue at first because they fear rejection, but the minute a real-life Nymphadora gives them the eye, they're there-IF they're interested, of course.

However, I admit this modesty makes Lupin an even more romantic romantic hero and it creates some nice sentimental tension and makes Nymphadora look good, too. Ah, the noble race of Wizards.

But in real life Lupin would have said "Yes, Nymphadora" with only a brief delay or never said Yes at all.

Tess said...

Mmm, Peeta Mellark from the Hunger Games. Much more recent, but also freshly read (and watched), so fresh in my mind. Good: loyal, faithful, self-sacrificing (puts Katniss's good above his own). Bad and/or unrealistic: Doesn't ever see her faults, idolizes her, makes his life always and only about her.

Captain Wentworth from Austen's Persuasion strikes me as being one of the safer crushes, if only slightly. He is bitter about Anne breaking off their engagement and is very close to marrying someone else, which is a lot more realistic. The novel is also pretty self-aware. Wentworth claims Anne was always the only one in his thoughts, but Austen says, rather wisely, that Anne believed the sentiment rather than the verity of such a claim. It's probably still a dangerous model to follow, though. Anne says at one point that women over men tend to hold onto love longest when all hope is extinguished, which I think is true. But it is also really self-destructive behaviour. At the beginning of the story, you see that Anne is being destroyed-- still at home, the bloom of youth gone, disrespected and almost ignored by her family -- but she is then rewarded for holding on for so long by Wentworth eventually declaring his passionate, unwavering love for her. It would be interesting to know how often such a thing happens in real life. Probably not as often as literature would have us believe.

RMVB said...

Oh yes, how could I miss that one? I would find it creepy if an older man said he were in love with me, and honeslyt, would probably be creeped out by him even really wanting to be good enough friends with me to provide a relationship that claimed to be love...

Seraphic said...

I haven't seen the film, but so far Peetah (surely Peter?) seems perfectly believable to me. Lots of crazy-in-love guys don't ever see their beloveds' faults, idolize them and make their guy lives so much about girl them that their friends get really hacked off. I'm not saying guys should be like that. They just sometimes are and it can end happily or decidedly NOT.

Ah, Captain Wentworth. What a stroke of luck for Anne that he was still available when he turned up again.

Seraphic said...

Oh well, RMVB, Tonks and Lupin were thrown together a lot, being in the same Wizard paramilitary organization, and he quite obviously wouldn't have made a move if he didn't think Tonks would reciprocate. And he might not have been THAT old--maybe just a battered 38 to her 28 or something.

Clare said...

I think my last real fictional crush was on Han Solo from the Star Wars movies. Aside from the obvious reasons to like him, it wasn't the bad-boy thing as much as his partnership with Leia in the rebellion. That vision of shared commitment to an important work was very attractive to me--I liked the idea of a man who'd back me up in a firefight.

The misleading bit is that nice men who fall in love with you generally want to do things like stay at home and hang out with you on weekends, not foment revolutions.

Eowyn said...

I too must admit to being a Gilbert Blythe fan. It's hard to not admire his long devotion to Anne (though yes, this could be creepy and/or annoying and/or just plain tragic in real life). His devotion goes from a schoolboyish "I like you, pay attention to me!" to more self-sacrificing and forebearing. Also, they're good friends. They understand each other and like the same stuff. They quote the same books and laugh at the same jokes. I think we all want that. Gilbert Blythe quotes poetry and that is hard to ignore. And heck, his joy at finding out that Anne might care for him pulls him through a life-threatening illness, for goodness sake. Awfully romantic. Also, there is the added drama/romance of "The type of person I always dreamed of isn't actually the right person for me, actually he's been here all along" Anne got want she thought she wanted in Roy and realizes that she really wanted her old friend from Avonlea. The idea that our best male friend might suddenly turn out to be perfect for us (and vice-versa) is also an appealing one.

We've already been over what's wrong with Gilbert...let me add that it is a touch unrealistic to expect a man to have read ALL the same books as you and love them just as much as you do AND quote poetry...but I think the man I marry shall need to have read SOME of the same books, or at least read the ones I recommend, and recommend others to me in turn...

I have written so much and have not even mentioned Faramir, who is my other romantic ideal (surprise!). In brief: Faramir sees Eowyn, loves her, goes out of his way to learn as much as he can about her, loves her MORE, pursues her so gently and beautifully and ends up breaking down all the inner walls and chains in her life and brings out all the life and joy inside her...and it all happens very quietly amidst very uncertain times. I think what I admire most about Faramir is how purely he loves Eowyn and high esteem, respect and admiration he has for her. He pursues her (no dilly-dallying!) and persists even when she throws up flimsy excuses involving her own woundedness (he loves her anyway!). Again, this only all would work if Eowyn ends up loving Faramir, which happily she does...but if she didn't, Faramir would move into the same camp as Gilbert would if Anne didn't have her oh-my-goodness-it-was-Gilbert-I-loved-all-along epiphany.

Eowyn said...

Oh! I forgot to mention: As much as I admire Gilbert, I have long maintained that I would be quite contented with Philippa's Jonas Blake. Dear, sweet, funny-looking (ugly by Phil's admission) Jonas with the lovely voice and the beautiful soul and disposition, with the sense of humour and devotion to God, who turns Phil's frivilous world upside-down and solves the Alec vs Alonzo question for good.

american in deutschland said...

I just finished reading LOTR aloud to a nine year old boy, and I'm afraid I will never be able to really romanticize Faramir and Eowyn again. When you're reading to such an audience, you pick up on slightly different things. Like the fact that what Faramir can't stop talking about, with regard to Eowyn, is (in the following order) her 1. beauty and 2. sadness.

HER SADNESS. He loves her sadness so much you guys. She's like a very sad beautiful lady. It's just that her people are Nordic. (to quote Betty Draper).

My young friend interrupted during the love speech and went, "Why do all the men think the most beautiful ladies are the most sad ladies?"


I tried to explain it was a Tolkien thing.

Seraphic said...

HEAVENS! I had forgotten that if I ever noticed. I think it must be a Tolkien thing, for my experience of the world suggests that real-life men think the most beautiful ladies are the happy ladies.

There are not many women in LOTR, and most of them are Elves.

Do you think that if men knew how popular Gilbert Blythe was to the female psyche, they would sit down and read all the "Anne" books? I think there's a blogpost there, but on my OTHER blog, the one men are allowed to read.

american in deutschland said...

At least in this case, I think it's completely a Tolkien thing. A great part of his whole aesthetic is based on sadness, and he fell in love with his wife (as teenagers) when they were both orphans taken under the protection of a priest guardian. I brought it up particularly because I think it can give certain girls a somewhat different (but just as mistaken) idea that a really deep and true-hearted man will be drawn to their mournful countenance and immediately want to know why they are so sad and swoop in to rescue them. Hahahah.

Doesn't happen. And actually, if some stranger really did swoop in out of the blue to save me from my sadness, I would suspect they had control and/or women-as-players-in-my-theater problems.

I think boys and men do know that Gilbert is popular with women, and that is precisely why they avoid and sometimes disdain the books so much. It's like Justin Bieber syndrome -- men (or boys) who women (or girls) desire are seen as somehow made effeminate by that desire. That is unless they are the other kind of "desirable" man, the Don Drapers and players of the world, who don't stop for one minute to commit and be vulnerable. Men as a group don't seem to like depictions of men devoting themselves slavishly to one woman and waiting around for her to say yes. Girls I think like it because it establishes security -- some guy who sacrifices his self-image to get to be with you will not turn around and betray your gift of self -- and men (again, as a group) dislike it because... fill in the blank.

Seraphic said...

Hmm! Very insightful. But they sometimes also love Bogey and other heroes of the Golden Age of Silver Screen who get the girl. Oh, wait, though. Bogey famously gave up the girl in one famous incident...

Eowyn said...

In Faramir's defense, when Eowyn accuses him of pitying her sadness, he says that he would love her even if she were the blissful queen of Gondor.

Anna said...

I am not sure what to make about the sadness thing. A man who has had a crush on me for about 2 years now said that one thing that he finds attractive about me is that I give out a sense of sadness/melancholy. This came as a surprise as generally I'm in a good mood (tho my friends tell me I do have Eeyore tendencies).

Maybe some men who are gregarious themselves want to be with women who tend towards melancholy, because the men feel they bring happiness to their love's life. Just a hypothesis.

Sarah said...

I can say from experience that someone who says that one of the things they like about you is your sadness is a HUGE, glaring, fire engine-red flag.

I had a boyfriend who seemed to think that the most important thing that we had in common was that we were both in a rough place in our lives.

Initially I thought it was nice to have each other's support until things got better. When they DID get better, I became happier, and he became resentful. I remember when something really major happened to me and I was thrilled, he said, "I don't think I've ever seen you this happy before." The way he said it made me ask, "Is that a problem for you?" "Well, I'm afraid you don't need me anymore," he replied. He went on to explain that he thought he would have a partner in his-- I forget what word he used, but basically, his depression-- and if I was this happy, we were off kilter. That, it turned out, was the crux of our relationship. He was happy as long as he felt like the main or only source of happiness in my life. It was never about me. It was about his need to feel needed. We broke up a week later.

Magdalen said...

I've just discovered your blog and have been linking it to everyone I know who will appreciate it.

My most dangerous romantic hero was Calvin O'Keefe from the Wrinkle in Time books. How awesome was he?

With LMM, I was more of a Blue Castle gal (to the extent that I'm 50% that part of the initial reason I worked at a Muskoka summer camp was just to go where TBC was set.) Girl runs away from smothering family who doesn't see her true worth, marries a man (a reputed scallywag) out of convenience, and they fall in love. She then discovers that 1) he is also the author of her favorite books and 2) he is the heir to a muti-million dollar pharmaceutical company. She is then accepted back into the bosom of her now-contrite family.

Oh, and Adam Eddington/Vicky Austin in the Austin series of L'Engle books, and Joe Willard/Betsy Ray in the Betsy Tacy Books. Which was always very confusing for me, as it's a fictionalised version of her own love life, but she made it so she met her future husband a good 10 years before she actually did.