Classic Love Stories. Are They Still Part Of The Romance Genre?
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE PINK HEART SOCIETY MAGAZINE
If a classic love story is now considered "literature", does that mean it's not part of the romance genre any more? Avril Tremayne argues it is, using three of her favorite classic novels as evidence and categorizing them the way we would with a modern day series romance.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
My favourite Jane Austen novel – mature, witty, sharp…and of course, intensely romantic. This one really is all about the love story.
What’s the story?
Anne Elliot used to be engaged to naval captain Frederick Wentworth – until family friend Lady Russell persuaded her to give up the match on the basis that Captain Wentworth wasn’t of high enough consequence for the titled Elliott family. Eight years later, Anne is a 27 year old spinster and her family’s prosperity has been squandered. Captain Wentworth (having made his fortune) re-enters the scene, courtesy of his sister and brother-in-law who rent the Elliott family home.
Type of romance
Sweet – there isn’t even a kiss, let alone any hint of sex
Second chance at love – done to perfection
The romance elements
Heroine: Anne is level-headed and pragmatic – the type of person everyone turns to in a crisis. A dutiful daughter, responsible sister, conscious of her responsibilities. But she isn’t perfect – thank goodness, because don’t we all hate perfect heroines? Her flaw is that she allowed herself to be persuaded to sacrifice love for family pride – which wouldn’t suit us romance readers except for the fact that she’s paid the price and has suffered for eight and a half years!
Hero: Oh dear Lord, what a man! Captain Frederick Wentworth is a naval guy – hello, military hero alert? He’s also a self-made man – yay! He’s never got over his love for Anne (just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?) so despite his bitter disappointment at once being deemed not good enough, he can’t help falling for her all over again as he re-recognizes her fine qualities. Yes please – give him to me in any book in any era!
Conflict: Conflicts galore but the main one is the class chasm between Frederick and Anne, which she still thinks was the right decision even though it stole all hope of love (crazy!) and he finds it hard to forgive. There are also two satisfying love triangles – via Louisa Musgrove, in whose family Frederick accidentally raised hopes by being too-chivalrous after she suffers a bad fall for which he blames himself, and Anne’s cousin William Elliott (a right bounder) whom it’s expected Anne will marry.
Happily Ever After: Misunderstandings arising from the love triangles deliciously delay the happily ever after for Anne and Frederick, but they get there in style, courtesy of a letter Frederick secretly dashes off to Anne while she is still in the room talking unknowingly to a third person about how differently men and women love! Talk about swoon.
The quote to prove the case: (from Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne)
“…You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine…”
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
The book that first whispered to me that I’d one day be a writer of passionate romance…
What’s the story?
Jane Eyre – a plain, poor, but strong-willed young woman without friends or connections – takes a job as governess to the ward of rich, enigmatic, brooding Mr Rochester. Against type and the dictates of society, Jane and Rochester fall passionately in love…only for Mr Rochester’s past (in the form of a wife still living, although mad) to tear Jane from his side.
The story covers a lot of ground – Jane’s awful childhood, the Thornfield Hall period where she meets her equal in Mr Rochester, her time of refuge with the Rivers family after fleeing the adulterous affair Mr Rochester offers her, and her eventual reconciliation with Mr Rochester – but what we’re all interested in is the romance. Seriously, I know people who only look at the ‘good bits’ when they re-read this book!
Type of romance
Sexy – make no mistake, there may be no sex on the page, but Jane and Mr Rochester share an intensely physical attraction and it’s hot, hot, hot!
Gothic woman-in-peril. Plain Jane heroine wins heart of bad boy. May-December relationship (Jane is considerably younger than Mr Rochester – ingénue to rake)
The romance elements
Heroine: Jane is a Quakerish wallflower who’s been bullied and brutalized all her life – but she has a will of iron and a passionate nature. She’s a smart, dedicated teacher, with snark enough to stop her being a doormat, and she stands by her principles even if she hurts herself in the process. Romance heroines just don’t come any better!
Hero: Rich, dark, and dangerous, Mr Rochester is a tortured rake. He’s highly intelligent, powerful verging on violent, and passionate as hell – and best of all, although he could have his pick of brides, it’s plain insignificant Jane who makes him wild. He puts the ‘bad’ in bad boy.
Conflict: In a nutshell, Mr Rochester is naughty, but Jane is not. This is a novel about passion versus restraint, about denying your personal desire in order to do the right thing.
Happily Ever After: It’s all about redemption bringing rewards – just what we like in a romance novel. Mr Rochester has been physically and emotionally punished for his moral lapse; Jane is rewarded for her purity with an inheritance, the imbalance in their stations is re-calibrated, and they can finally be together!
The quote to prove the case: (Mr Rochester to Jane when she takes issue with his lack of love for his mad wife)
"…[you know] nothing about the sort of love of which I am capable. Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear. Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat--your grasp, even in fury, would have a charm for me: if you flew at me as wildly as that woman did this morning, I should receive you in an embrace, at least as fond as it would be restrictive. I should not shrink from you with disgust as I did from her: in your quiet moments you should have no watcher and no nurse but me; and I could hang over you with untiring tenderness, though you gave me no smile in return; and never weary of gazing into your eyes, though they had no longer a ray of recognition for me.”
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights is a controversial choice. Even though it has the happily ever after required of the romance genre for one of the two couples whose story this is (Hareton Earnshaw and Catherine Linton), they’re not the two characters we’re intrigued by!
Wuthering Heights is overwhelmingly the story of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Despite the fact they spend a meagre amount of time on the page together by modern romance standards, courtesy of Cathy’s untimely death, the transcendence of their love holds us spellbound.
What’s the story?
Widower Mr Earnshaw brings home foundling child Heathcliff) to join his family, setting the scene for series of tragedies that will cross two generations as Earnshaw’s son Hindley develops a towering jealousy of Heathcliff, and his daughter Catherine a towering love.
Type of romance
I’m going with ‘taboo’, because the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is as foster-siblings but is actually unnervingly twin-like. So fundamental is their connection it’s beyond romantic, beyond sexual, and becomes twisted in its obsessiveness.
Gothic. Rich girl/poor boy. Poor boy made good. Love triangle (Heathcliff/Cathy/Edgar)
The romance elements
Heroine: Catherine is beautiful, wild, free-spirited – fabulous qualities from a romance reader’s perspective. But she can also be cruel, callous and selfish – not so fabulous. She chooses wealth and position via marriage to Edgar Linton over a marriage to Heathcliff that she believes would ‘degrade’ her – and yet her love for Heathcliff is fierce, to the point where she sees the two of them as one soul and therefore untouchable by any third party.
Hero: Heathcliff is alpha to the max. To be honest, he’s an arsehole. Dark, brooding, wild, obsessed, jealous, vengeful. Romance readers love a bad boy, but where Heathcliff differs from a usual hero is in his resistance to redemption: he’s an arsehole to the end, destroying everyone in his orbit – including the woman he loves to the edge of madness, as well as himself. Interestingly, despite Emily Bronte’s best efforts to paint Heathcliff as a villain, he retains more power over the reader than the more traditionally heroic male characters in the book. Edgar Linton, for example, who loves his wife, the undeserving Cathy, unconditionally, comes off as an also-ran. Maybe it’s because the torment Heathcliff suffers from loving Cathy so obsessively really is heat-wrenching – he has her grave dug up so he can see her, for God’s sake, bribing the sexton to open the side of her coffin and bury him next to her upon his own death so he can be close to her! Architect of destruction he may be, but I defy any modern reader not to be a little bit captivated by him. It’s a case of loving a guy on the page but not wanting him anywhere near you in real life.
Conflict: Social status. Jealousy / possessiveness / envy. Good versus evil.
Happily Ever After: The novel ends with a type of familial ‘rebirth’ via the next generation, via the marriage of Hareton Earnshaw (the son of Heathcliff’s hated enemy Hindley) and his cousin Catherine Linton (Cathy and Edgar’s daughter). But I’ve always hoped the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff found their own version of happiness via their comingled grave and are haunting the moors together.
The quote to prove the case: (Heathcliff to Cathy after her death)
“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you – haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe – I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”