Jennifer Byrne Presents: Lovers

There is something rather irritating about the special Jennifer Byrne Presents adjuncts to the First Tuesday Book Club. Perhaps it is the time constraints that prevent ideas to be explored any great depth as it flits from one topic to another or perhaps it’s the smug self-assurance of some of the guests.

April’s topic of literary lovers was canvassed among Toby Schmitz (cross promoting his turn in Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, Posie Graeme-Evans (hope they have her on again), Andrea Goldsmith and Mark Colvin.  Drawing a panel from the same socio-economic class is hardly going to invite a divergence of opinion.

When discussing the greatest lovers in the history of English Literature, who would you give a gurney to?  Tristan and Isolde?  Edward and Bella?  Dear God Twilight? Really?

Both Schmitz and Colvin nominate Beatrice and Benedict and the ‘kind of merry war betwixt’ them. Scepticism of Schmitz’s motives aside, yes they are a significant literary couple.  As Colvin observed prior to the creation of the ‘funny, clever and quick’ Beatrice the romantic narrative focussed upon courtly love where women were placed upon a pedestal and paradoxically silenced.  The success of the play meant that from the sixteenth century onwards, romantic literature replicated this dynamic.

What then of Shakespeare’s other hallmark couple Romeo and Juliet? Our panel is not so quite enthused by this pairing.  Graeme-Evans suggests perhaps as we age we airbrush the passion of adolescence away and hence disconnect from Romeo and Juliet.  There seems to be concurrence that Romeo and Juliet works better as a study of tribal warfare than as a romance.

Goldsmith offers Cathy and Heathcliff who suffer alot to ‘tootled around the moors.’ Jennifer poses the question are the great love stories unconsummated and tragic. This question is not directly answered rather discussion ensues about the brutish nature of Heathcliffe (the guy is a psychopath).  He is made a brute because the love of his life is taken away from him.  A life without love is a brutish life.  The interesting observation is made about Wuthering Heights, the whole story is hinged upon Heathcliffe overhearing a fragment of a conversation that if he had stayed for the next sentence (in a very pantomime manner) the events of the book would not have unfolded as it does. The story is the skeleton to which to hang the characters and does not have the same intricate plotting of Shakespeare. The mortality rate of the novel is mentioned.  Bronte uses death as a convenient plot device in a manner that would not be credible in a contemporary model.

 This is the part of the discussion where although fascinating was a bit off track, we felt in the manner that the program was advertised i.e. a discussion about the great fictional lovers. Colvin observes that the relationship between Keats and Fanny Brawne echoed the Beatrice and Benedict dynamic.   The panel then begins discussing the love life of Keats and Fanny Brawne. Later in the programme the real-life affair between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath is cited an example of love being tumultuous and not necessarily equating with happiness.  As interesting as these real-life counterparts are, it would have been better if it was addressed in a future episode (with Colvin as a guest) rather than cramming them in alongside the fictional lovers.  Decides, if you want to discuss a tumultuous love affair that withers into an intense hate, look no further than Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

Jennifer poses the question again, are the great love stories unconsummated and end in death?  An ambivalent yes on the first part and no on the second is reached. It is agreed that  sex is secondary. As Dickens said, ‘Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait’. This waiting is known in contemporary parlance as unresolved sexual tension or to the educated limerence.  ‘Limerence powers so much love,’ proffered Graeme-Evans.

‘Sex in novels is generally fairly dull,’ interjects Goldsmith.  Romance is about the ‘yearning, the burning and the bewilderment, that longing and disappointment. It is those emotions that create the intensity’.  So perhaps we can answer the question that the greatest love stories are unconsummated ( at least at the close of the story) as not one pair of fictional lovers cited by the panel consummate their love upon the written page. Interestingly, none of the proffered couples derived from the 20th Century.

So the question remains do we want the happy ending?  Again there seems to be the consensus.  The modern romance we turn to for escapism.  We want the lovers to experience trials and tribulations and then walk into the sunset together.  Schmitz adds his coda that there needs to be the suggestion that things may not work out.  You cannot equate love with happiness.  Colvin is quick to point out that we have this in Beatrice and Benedict. 

The panel group thinks their way towards the conclusion of  perhaps  we are more accepting of tragedy and the doomed lovers in the classics.  We know how they end. This distance in time affords the catharsis and intensity of disappointed love.  There is tragedy in the contemporary romance but it does not necessarily take the form of death. Again it is quickly pointed out you cannot so readily kill a contemporary character off.  But you can introduce other lovers albeit the death of love in the form of infidelity

My issue (and hence the rant) is why was not Elizabeth and Darcy cited. Sure Jane Austen was mentioned.  Lizzy and Darcy are seen as descendants as Beatrice and Benedict and the template Shakespeare established but are we now at the juncture where Lizzy and Darcy are so integral to popular culture that they forfeit the right to be mentioned as great literary lovers?

Yes, of course there was the snide (unnecessary benchmarking) remark about Mills and Boon. What discussion would be complete without that? But the discussion left some questions unanswered.  Are we incapable of producing great love stories in the 20th and 21st centuries due to commercial restraints.  Contemporary romance is dogged by gratuitous sex scenes and yet within the context of the panel discussion the great romances are left unconsummated.  

Perhaps the most striking comment of the episode belongs to Goldsmith and the impact of real life in how we mediate romance.  Goldsmith posits that the greatest intimacy we have is not with other humans but with books as the imaginative world created is ‘enormously intense, enormously powerful’.

So perhaps, we do not need to be so explicit for the romance to be powerful.

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