Let me put this in context. On Thursday a friend phoned me to say that he had just read a story which he had much enjoyed and thought very romantic. He had told the writer – whom he knew – of this response.
The writer said he was “intrigued”. My friend – let us call him Robert – explained his reasons. Eventually the writer decided that he was OK with the romantic label “as long as he didn’t mean sentimental.”
Is a work of art that conveys human emotion somehow a lesser thing to write about than, say, finding a vaccine against Covid 19? Though emotion would surely be involved in that, anyway.
A little bit of (my) history
I persuaded half a dozen people with a Y chromosome of varying ages and professions to read that year’s short list for the Romantic Novel of the Year. They came for supper at my house and discussed it. Robert was one.
The Romantic in Fiction
His comment at the the time was that he didn’t think any of the novels was very romantic. He contrasted them unfavourably in that regard with Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. (And I agree that is a truly romantic book.)
Robert has maintained a friendly interest in romantic fiction ever since. We return to the subject every year or so.
And yes, I have bought the book he recommended and already started to read it. I may well report back. So far it is startling, painful and deeply believable.
And yes, there are already signs of a romantic sensibility of sorts. That is romantic as defined by the late best-selling writer, inspired editor (Terry Pratchett, Joanna Trollope and many, many more) and publisher, Diane Pearson
When the RNA discussed what qualities we needed to look for in the Romantic Novel of the Year, Diane, President for more than twenty years, always reminded us not to forget strong emotion in the context of great events. Operatic she called it.
Can You Trust Emotion in words and Music?
Ah, opera. I notice that music is involved in both of Robert’s untraditional romantic picks. Not by chance, I suspect. Music licenses the expression of emotion. The trouble with words is that they can be manipulative, or downright lies.
And not just opera. Noel Coward has Amanda say in Private Lives, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” You hear the shudder. Nobody wants to be manipulated. So let’s denigrate the song.
“Zounds, do you think I am easier to be played upon than a pipe?” Hamlet flings at the duplicitous Guildenstern. When it comes to seeing through the schmaltz, Hamlet’s self-respect is involved.
- easy tears
- luxuriating in sadness or pity
- exaggerated feelings
That startled me. I’d always thought of sentimentality in an historical context. In the eighteenth century it was lauded by Richardson, Goldsmith, Henry Fielding and Sheridan as a sort generous sense of fellowship, almost empathy, I suppose.
Then the Victorians, led by their Queen, turned it into a sort of display, not least in their mourning rituals.
But here I was playing word association and discovering that what I felt about it was quite different. Clearly I was seeing it as almost a substitute for real feeling. And recoiling from emotion-junkies. And, as an article in the Vancouver Sun points out, sentimentality has its dark side. Hitler was a great weeper – over the wrong things.
There was not as much clear water between Robert’s writer friend and me as I had thought.
Sentiment, Memory and Empathy
And those moments of realisation, sharp as a thorn, where suddenly I feel inconsolable loss, sometimes my own in the past, sometimes that of someone else. A garden will do it, or a scent. Sometimes just a word.
That is pure feeling, sentiment, and it costs. My life is the richer for that experience. It makes me think and often take action. It’s not phoney.
When Piglet lets Eeyore give Piglet’s home to Owl, for instance.
In Persuasion, more than once.
Once I’ve found out the places where I cry, I approach that part of the book with great caution, only when I’m feeling strong and only when I’m on my own. This is definitely not for sharing.
The word has two distinct elements, Partly it comes from the mediaeval romance where events happened in a semi-magical world.
As I wrote recently, I’m fine with magic, fantasy and other worldly doings that are sideways on to my reality.
The other element is quite simply a love story. And I find them endlessly intriguing.
To set out my stall – I think love is important in all sorts of relationships. What’s more, I think finding a life partner you love is difficult, sometimes downright dangerous
The experience is often bruising, sometimes brutal. The odds against success are horrible.
Unless you’re really braced, much better stay home with a good book and a cat,
From the writer’s point of view, of course, it’s a gift. Full of conflict.
AND they have to keep their ordinary lives, jobs, friends and family going at the same time.
AND manage the incidental hiccups along the way, like the odd earthquake or pandemic.
On balance therefore, I conclude that I am a Romantic with occasional moments of Sentimental Awareness. Rather to my surprise.
What about you?