Champagne at sunset.
Whisked away to a luxury hotel.
The surprise gift of an antique book of poetry.
Are these the epitome of romantic gestures?
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about romance. Also, having (I’m embarrassed to admit) become a little addicted to Love Island this year, I’m eagerly noticing the trappings of romance they scatter around. Because, depending on your definition of this surprisingly complex concept, I don’t have any and I’m kind of pissed off about that.
Ah my pink, fluffy, kitten-hearted friend, you may ask, what exactly is your definition of romance?
Well, I know it’s not pure sex. Neither is it not true love. It’s not something you buy from the card shop along with a foil balloon or found in a perfume bottle, no matter how much the advertising industry tells you it is. It’s sickly when manufactured yet invisible when left to its own devices. Being romantic is never about money but it’s so easy to look cheap. Romance both is, and is not, many things at the same time.
So, as always when I’m trying to get to the heart (aha, groan) of something, lets read a book about it.
The Ancient Greeks divided love into four different types. There is agape (divine or charitable love), philia (brotherly, or in most our cases, sisterly love) and storge (family love). And then, of course, there is eros. Passionate, exciting and erotic, eros is perhaps the foundation of romance. Without that sizzling ping of erotic enthusiasm, romance deflates at the first hurdle. So basically, you have to fancy the pants off them.
But there are increasingly subtle layers making up the whole contemporary romance package. The next is that of courtly love. During the Middle Ages, specifically in the castle kingdoms of Acquitane, Provence and Champagne, the social conditions were ripe for a the development of an artistic and personal phenomenon known as courtly love. In these male dominated castles, the few noble ladies present were often married off at a young age to men they had little in common with, let alone love for. The castles were also home to many young knights, for whom life could be brief and brutal. The ensuing erotic tensions were most safely channelled into courtly love; an act of emotional longing between a young male knight and a socially superior lady, expressed according to highly prescribed rituals. Secret meetings at dawn, the writing or reciting of devotional poetry and songs, the wearing of the lady’s favour at a tournament were all expressions of courtly love. Although there is much talk of sex in the literature of courtly love, respect and emotional devotion were prized more highly.
Courtly love also finds its origins in the cult of the Virgin Mary (idolizing an untainted woman from afar) and the necessities of feudalism (having a wealthy powerful woman as your sponsor was no bad thing for a young knight on the make). But courtly love imbedded itself deeply into western society’s consciousness, so that it has far outlasted its original purpose.
How Courtly Love wouldn’t die
Providing further layers in our romance mille feuille, courtly love suffuses art throughout the ages, from Dante and Shakespeare to Jane Austen and Barbara Cartland. The etiquette of courtly love has been the straightjacket that romance has found it impossible to escape from. The idealisation of the untainted, untouchable woman, the sentimentalising of separation and adoration from afar, the emphasis put on devotion and purity; all are elements that we have a tendency to think of as elemental and eternal. We see them as key components of ‘romance’ when in fact they simply arose from the socio-economic conditions of European castle culture 700 years ago.
Finally, in terms of our current idea of romance, we have to consider the Romantic Poets of the 19th century. Although Wordsworth, Byron and Keats did not call themselves Romantics and Romanticism itself incorporates philosophical ideas on art, politics and religion as well as love, the poetry and emphasis on the sublime (intense emotional experiences) has added to our romantic expectations. The Romantics are why we find a misty moorland in November romantic as opposed to damp and miserable. Their close link to the Gothic and the strong love stories in much Victorian gothic literature is also why tales such as Twilight hit such a romantic note for us.
Modernism & Money
Twentieth century gender politics has done much to disentangle the myths of romance from the reality of sexual/social relationships. Yet we can clearly see how the rituals of courtly love still thrive. How we express our erotic longings through music and image, how we fetishize the giving of gifts and the recitation of the correct words at the correct time. We still expect a one-knee proposal for goodness sake. In this sense, isn’t romance is a destructive and oppressive force, trapping women into the need for adoration and man into the thankless role of adorer?
The final layer of romance is commercialisation. Somewhere along the line, someone realised that romance is big business, so we are inundated with what is the blandest, easiest, most commercially successful notion of romance. From Tiffany hearts to foil balloons, there is a landslide of tat aimed mostly at women that is deemed an essential purchase for a man to prove his romantic intentions.
And sadly I don’t have any of it. (I had to buy my own Tiffany heart which I promptly then lost). Worse than that, despite everything I’ve just written, I’m still as in thrall to cheap, superficial, plasticised romance as ever. Like a ride on a roller coaster, the kitsch thrill of full on romance continues to lure me in. Possibly because I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced it, I still hold it in unfathomably high esteem. It dominates my bucket list.
I suppose I should talk myself out of wanting it. (Or provide it for myself, is that possible with romance? Plenty of DIY sex options but no romance ones I can think of easily…). After writing this, I kept coming back to the conclusion that for something so obvious, garish and ubiquitous, romance is in fact a complex beast. Not too genuine, not too fake, not too close yet not far away. Simultaneously heartrending yet ridiculous. It’s most difficult of tightropes to walk.
Indeed, perhaps the whole point of romance is that it will never truly exists in real life. Even those courtly lovers, meeting at dawn, were probably annoyed by loud cockerels and pair of too tight hose. It is only for books and films and late night imaginings.
But then again, book reading only gets us so far, but this is a real life experience. I put out a call on Instagram and I think everyone’s responses revealed the key to … True Romance (click here to read)
What do you think is the origin of romance and how important is it to you?