Sunday, April 10, 2011

Romance in Literature: Two Bob


I was recently directed to a blog post on Romance in Literature over at Ballantyne the Brave, which (if you enjoy this site) you should certainly visit. I agree with everything said there, except maybe I would add that the reason Mr Darcy has no time for you is not that he has a fan club but that he has been very happily married for some time now to the former Miss Elizabeth Bennet, as clever and charming as whom you will never be.
I will leave that post to make the case for having fictional romances at all. I want to take it a bit further, however, and talk about what kind of romances are good to have in literature.
One main thing to remember when thinking about fictional romances is that beyond a certain point, it's a wisdom issue how much and what kind of romances we talk about, just like it's a wisdom issue how much physical contact a couple might have before marriage (as long as they're adhering to the minimum standards). Fictional romance can be flawed in all kinds of ways—sometimes as badly flawed as it can possibly be—but still be part of a good book. The question should not be “Should these characters behave in this way?” so much as it should be “Why would they do that? Why should I (or should I not) depict it?” Chesterton said something similar when he said that a book with no bad characters is a bad book. It's appropriate to use flawed characters to teach something.
Sometimes the flawed characters aren't used to teach something, however. It's possible to enjoy a story while disagreeing to some point or other with certain elements of it. The question of whether I personally would put such and such a thing in my works is distinct from the question of whether I enjoy reading a work which contains it. I wouldn't write a book featuring a character intended to symbolise a Catholic understanding of Mary, for instance, but my favourite book, The Lord of the Rings, does have such a character—Galadriel. Sometimes the flaw is so subtle as to be barely recognisable—you have to know the author's motivation to realise that the flaw is there at all. Sometimes the flaw is more obvious. How about George MacDonald's universalism in Lilith, or the “righteous pagan” character of Emeth in CS Lewis's The Last Battle? Those are still worthwhile books, though you need discernment.
But back to the romances. Let's take any romance from a GA Henty book. Boy meets girl, boy saves girl from brigands, boy goes on adventure, boy comes back and finds it necessary to save girl from brigands again, boy suggests to girl that they might as well take permanent steps to keep girl brigand-free in the future, and they lived happily ever after. Nothing wrong with that. Let's have plenty of those, please.
Let's try something a little harder. How about Robert Louis Stevenson's Catriona? Our hero, David Balfour, finds himself in Leyden taking care of Catriona. But for him, she would be destitute as she has been cast off by her family. David steps up to his responsibility, rents a house for both of them, and (if I recall correctly) gives out that Catriona is his sister. The behaviour of all parties is scrupulously correct throughout. In fact, a lot of the melodrama in the story stems from the fact that David is badly in love with Catriona, but realises that as long as she is under his protection he is honour-bound not to confess it as that would mean taking advantage of her.
The question is not whether the characters should have acted in this way so much as whether RL Stevenson should have put them in that situation. Think about it. Is it wrong for two young people to live in the same house? Not as such, but it's not very wise. Is the example in Catriona to be deplored? That depends on what it's trying to tell us—and it tells us that a man should never take advantage of a woman who is dependent upon him. I think that's something that needs to be said.
How about Jane Eyre? In this book, Jane (a friendless orphan girl who has only ever had God to rely on) travels to mysterious Thornfield Hall as a governess. Her employer, Mr Rochester, is as mysterious as his home and before long Jane learns that his “ward”, her charge, is in all likelihood his daughter by a previous mistress. Despite Rochester's caddish behaviour, Jane falls in love with him anyway. When it turns out on their wedding-day that he is already married, Jane flees despite all his arguments, determined that she shall never yield and become his mistress. Eventually the previous wife is disposed of, Rochester repents of his bad behaviour, and Jane is free to marry him.
Jane Eyre is even more problematic than Catriona. After all, Jane should know better than to agree to marry Rochester when what little she knows of his past is bad. Still, I think Jane Eyre is an important part of any girl's education, because the whole unwise set-up is the basis for a piece of great wisdom. When all Jane's hopes and dreams have crashed down, leaving her with only two options—to obey the moral law, to walk away and never see Rochester again; or to seek unlawful happiness with him—Jane chooses to obey, to depart. It's not that she doesn't love him enough to want to sin; she does! But as she says to herself--
I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane, with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations are all I have at this hour to stand by; there I plant my foot.”

This is the most important passage in the book, and a wonderful illustration of self-government. The problem is that to so graphically depict such an important truth—one which everyone should live by—Bronte made her heroine in love with a completely unworthy man, in a position that requires a previous marriage to be dissolved in some way before her own happy ending can come about. Could Bronte have chosen her plot more wisely? Undoubtedly. But Jane Eyre still stands as a powerful illustration of an important truth.
Let's go one step further and talk about Brideshead Revisited. In this book, the narrator, Charles Ryder, becomes entangled in the life of a doomed aristocratic family. An agnostic himself, Charles is drawn to that portion of the family which has rebelled from their Catholic faith and is seeking to escape God. The book is about grace, human and divine love, and guilt as the vehicle of grace and love. The rebellious Flytes, the patriarch and his two children Sebastian and Julia, are haunted by a powerful guilt they know they cannot escape.
Charles, Sebastian, and Julia are dogged by unhappiness in everything they attempt; the only happiness they find is in human love—Charles's philos love for Sebastion and later his affair with Julia, which leads to both of them deserting their families and divorcing their spouses. For a while human love is enough, but finally divine grace—or guilt, or justice—catches up with both Julia and Charles. Both undergo a conversion experience and realise that they must part, since surrender to God means surrender to the fact that they can neither live in sin nor marry while their previous spouses live. Almost without a word, both voluntarily retreat into separate lives now only made bearable by a knowledge that they are now right with God.
In Brideshead Revisited the romance is actually wrong, wrong, wrong; the only right thing about it is the manner of its ending. Yet the author never explicitly condemns it. Instead he shows that human love is worthless beside divine love—that when God declares such and such a human love to be unlawful, He must be obeyed rather than our hearts.
These last two books are great illustrations of my point. An author can have two aims in writing a story of unlawful love. Maybe he wants a red-hot tale of scorching passion—or maybe he wants to discuss how Christians should respond to sin in their own lives or the lives of people for whom they are responsible. How should families deal with sin? What consequences are there? What does repentance look like?
It's here that things get tricky. How are we going to depict sin in all its ugliness, without discounting the truth that it is also alluring? Some people—and you might include Charlotte Bronte in this assessment—might try to have both the scorching passion and the repentance and evil consequences. I think that's a very unwise way of doing it, but I wouldn't necessarily avoid a book for including that, although I wouldn't recommend it to the immature (see also: The Chase, Francine Rivers's A Voice in the Wind, and most revenge fiction ever written—for example, Ben-Hur).
We need to think about these things in depth. A book isn't necessarily bad because it depicts an unwise romance. The question is what's being said about the romance. Let's not be too precious—a hundred stories in which nobody ever does the wrong thing is marvellous, and thank God for GA Henty. But as Christians we need to be looking at how we should deal with the sin in our world, not just when it takes the shape of enemies and battles but also when it takes the shape of grievous sin in our own hearts.

6 comments:

Radagast said...

"How are we going to depict sin in all its ugliness, without discounting the truth that it is also alluring?" — very true.

Oh, and do you think Galadriel represents the Blessed Virgin Mary? I thought the Mary character in LotR was something else. Galadriel is too ambiguous a character for a Catholic author to link to Mary, surely?

Suzannah said...

Oh, yes, Elbereth Gilthoniel is also some kind of Marian figure. But there is a place in JRRT's letters where he discusses Galadriel as a Marian figure as well. Maybe I'm wrong--maybe it was someone who wrote to him after he'd finished the book saying he saw Marian imagery in Galadriel, and Tolkien wrote back and said Possibly, but it wasn't in my mind at the time. We do know that Galadriel as a rebellious figure really troubled him towards the end of his life and he continued to rewrite her story to free her from any blame in the Elven 'fall', possibly as a result of coming to see her as a Marian figure...

Radagast said...

Certainly the movie portrays Galadriel as a Marian figure. But I did not know that Tolkien continued to rewrite her story. Thanks for the feedback.

In the "Silmarillion," she certainly takes part in the Elven Kinslaying. Having given in to the allure of sin in the past, her renunciation of the Ring is thus all the more significant. If Tolkien had come to see her as a Marian figure, I can see why that would have worried him.

Radagast said...

Was the letter you were thinking of this one? The identification with Mary there indeed comes from a reader.

"I was particularly interested in your remarks about Galadriel. .... I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary, but actually Galadriel was a penitent: in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar (the angelic guardians). At the end of the First Age she proudly refused forgiveness or permission to return. She was pardoned because of her resistance to the final and overwhelming temptation to take the Ring for herself." - to Mrs Ruth Austin, 25 January 1971

Radagast said...

Back to the original topic, isn't one of the things we learn from Wuthering Heights that feeling things very, very, very intensely doesn't make a choice wise or good?

Suzannah said...

Yes, that was the letter. I couldn't find it at the time.

That probably was the point of Wuthering Heights, but it's been a while since I read it, and I remember not enjoying it very much!

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