This week I have been considering the nature of a sentimental romantic – and wondering whether I qualify.
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.”
Ah, I thought. What’s wrong with being sentimental? Or romantic for that matter? Is it because both have to do with emotions?
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
Some years ago, when I was Chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, a debate arose about whether, and if so why, only women appreciated romantic fiction.
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.
But actually music gets under your skin and not everyone likes that. (I speak as one who is deeply resistant to Puccini.)
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.
Before starting to write this, I made a list of the attributes that I associated with the word sentimental. It came out far more negative than I expected:
- 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 yet – opera. That chorus in L’Incoronazione di Poppaea where Seneca’s household gather round him and beg him not to commit suicide, as instructed by Nero. That hurts. It takes me time to recover.
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.
And sometimes I cry over books. Well, I say cry. My throat starts to burn and I blink a lot. Possibly the odd snortle. No weeping, wailing or roaring in the congregation.
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.
By contrast, I am not at all conflicted over calling myself a romantic.
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
Yet most of us seem to want it. Look at those Lonely Hearts columns in perfectly respectable newspapers. Look at the huge variety of online dating websites.
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.
Your characters are trying to keep their dignity in case it all goes wrong, at the same time as they know they have to be honest if they are going to have a future.
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?
I’m not really a romantic – but I have a horrible suspicion that I am sentimental. I am very easily manipulated to tears; yes, the throat hurting, incipient tears, but over subjects far removed from those called “romantic”. I once thought I could write the same sort of books that my friends do. I can’t. You, Sophie, know that. You read an early attempt! I am afraid that when I read or watch something with a romance element in it, I simply find myself saying”Oh, get on with it!” these days. And if we speak of the romance of, say, the countryside, the landscape, a painting, I simply call it beauty. So, no. I’m not a romantic.
I know what you mean about romantic stories, Lesley. Even I, sometimes, think, “Oh, for Heaven’s sake, get a life.” Not in the good ones, though and never in Persuasion or other of my old friends. But if a story is described as romantic I always start off hopeful.
Not sure the same is true of “sentimental” these days. The word seems to have been highjacked to the dark side.
I wonder if this view of sentimental owes something to the old-fashioned “sensibility” (as in Sense and Sensibility). Your list certainly seems to fit the bill there. A quick Google gives two separate definitions:
of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.
“she felt a sentimental attachment to the place creep over her”
having or arousing feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way. “a sentimental ballad”
So not always a bad thing. I’m a hopeless romantic, and certainly within the first definition, I am very often sentimental too.
I suspect it’s the plethora of self-indulgent sentimentality that abounds in life (and reality TV which I loathe with a passion) that has given the word a bad press. I submit there are very few overly sentimental books written by romantic novelists. They tend on the contrary to be realistic and often quite harsh in their romance We don’t treat our heroes and heroines well!
I definitely view ‘sentimental’ as a term of abuse – for me it conjures up the hypocritical Victorian sensibility of weeping over Tiny Tim etc etc (I’m not a Dickens fan!) while real people starved on the streets or lived in appalling slums, but that was all right because they weren’t the ‘deserving’ poor, or cooing over wide-eyed children in frills and curls while turning a blind eye to child sexual exploitation. ‘Touching’ or ‘affecting’ is different for me and romance can be optimistic, even rose-tinted, but needs a core of reality to ground it.
This article is one for me, I think. I agree with Elizabeth that sentimental has two distinct meanings. One is definitely pejorative, but the other…. we are all moved unexpectedly by a memory, or a poignant moment. Romance and romantic are far more tricky concepts. Deeply subjective, in real life they are words you can be more certain of. Yor own response to a situation is all you need know. But applied to films or books these terms can lead the viewer or reader to have very specific and sometimes disappointed expectations. What is romantic to one person is tiresome and shallow to another. This is why, if I could, I’d never use the words and substitute, where I could for love. My first publisher called her enterprise Love Stories. Even though it failed, I knew and supported what she was trying to do.
This is so interesting, thanks for sharing the book.