We asked Nicholas Lezard to write about his favourite romantic reads. Instead, he tore the English Novel a new one…
I’ve been trying to come up with decent romantic novels, and despite a degree in Eng Lit and thirty-six years’ experience as a book reviewer, I can’t think of a single one. I mean, apart from the obvious one.
In fact, you can probably come up with the top three yourself. (Google will deliver the same three if you can’t be bothered to do it yourself). The other two are Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, which seems to me to be stretching the concept of ‘romance’ somewhat.
Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, even Austen and Eliot, are all wonderful writers, but their work is founded in wish fulfilment
Looking at lists generated by an internet search can be a dismal affair for those who take their literature seriously. I looked at the results of a poll conducted by National Public Radio (NPR), the worthy non-commercial sector of American broadcasting, and it was quite the eye-opener.
NPR persuaded 18,000 people to write in with their suggestions and, scrolling down the lists (there are several categories: historical, paranormal, what have you) I find myself looking at a lot of book covers showing muscled hunks and bosomy women in revealing dresses. Revealing, either because they are marvellous satin ballgowns, or because they have become somewhat décolleté after a romp in a haystack. Always a haystack. And if not a haystack, then a stable. Where there is, of course, hay.
Every single one of them is by a woman. Or says they are. I suspect there may be a few men writing under pseudonyms in this racket. Here are some picks from the top of the deck (the ‘historical’ section).
Ravished, by Amanda Quick: “Fossil-hunting rector’s daughter Harriet Pomeroy summons the notorious Viscount St. Justin to sleepy Upper Biddleston …”
Lord of Scoundrels (part of the Scoundrels series) by Loretta Lynda Chase (“… stands out for the matchless banter between gruff, unruly Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain, and his lovely nemesis Jessica Trent …”)
The Rules of Scoundrels, also a series, by Sarah MacLean, is about “four notorious aristocrats”, who learn that “love has a way of offering absolution”.
I could go on, but then you might think I’m deliberately taking the mickey. I am not. Do you begin to see a pattern here? Maybe one or more of these is one of your favourites. And maybe, despite superficial similarities, each one of the novels I have mentioned is a tour-de-force of originality.
It was while I was thinking about this subject that I read an article by the great critic, John Lanchester, in which he articulated something that had been bothering me for decades. “The reader whose idea of the novel is formed by the English canon may at some stage start to read books in the French tradition.
“At that point, it may suddenly seem that everything one has previously read has essentially been children’s literature. Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, even Austen and Eliot, are all wonderful writers, but their work is founded in wish fulfilment, happy endings and love conquering all … When you turn from that tradition to the work of Laclos, Flaubert, Balzac, Stendhal, Maupassant and Proust, it’s like getting a glass of ice water in the face.”
He’s right. The so-called romantic novels mentioned above cannot really be counted as literature, that’s obvious; putting Dickens etc into an adjacent camp is, to say the least, audacious. But it’s a thought that’s very hard to shake off once you’ve come across it. (In the same essay I’ve quoted from above, Lanchester mentions the doyenne of English romantic novelists, Barbara Cartland, who “wrote 723 books in total. Nobody cares, because they’re all shit.”)
When I read Madame Bovary, it kind of inoculated me from every romantic feeling that fiction had to offer
I struggle to think of any novel in English literature where I have been affected by a central romance. Possibly I moped after Estella in Great Expectations for a bit. I remember thinking, while wading, heavy-footed, through Middlemarch, “what’s so bad about Casaubon? He’s a serious scholar, for goodness’ sake.”
I remember reading Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust when I was a teenager and falling in love with Brenda Last. If you do not know the work, Brenda Last is a shockingly poor choice of woman. Based on his own unfaithful first wife, Waugh portrayed a woman so vain and thoughtless and selfish that she sobs with relief when she finds out that it is her son, and not the worthless lover who shares his first name, who has died in a hunting accident. But I was in love, from a distance, at the time, and I thought women were simply like that.
When I read Madame Bovary, it kind of inoculated me from every romantic feeling that fiction had to offer. And I think that was precisely Flaubert’s intention.
So I am afraid I cannot offer any advice for Valentine’s Day reading. I presume everyone here has read Pride and Prejudice? That’s your lot, as English romantic novels go.
Nicholas Lezard has been a freelance writer since God was a boy. He writes the Down and Out column for the New Statesman, and lives in Brighton.