Love in Subtext
One of the things I love about the blogosphere is the way a post and the attendant discussion can inspire another post and create a rich conversation among readers and writers. My post about The Privileged Class Enjoying Its Privileges was inspired by a wonderful post of Pam's. Pam’s post a couple of weeks ago took off on the 1930s romantic comedies I’d mentioned in my post and as she said social class and escapist glitter in the Depression-era movie, The Philadelphia Story.
My thoughts also drifted to The Philadelphia Story after some wonderful follow up comments on my post. I got out my video and watched the movie for the umpteenth time. It’s been one of my favorites since I first saw it at the age of ten. Even before that, I’d read and loved the Philip Barry play on which it is based. What struck me watching this time is how, in a movie that says a great deal about love and types of love and in which who will end up with whom is an open question, Tracy and Dexter’s love story is almost entirely in subtext. They talk about their past, but they don’t talk about their present feelings until the very end of the movie, when he proposes. And even that is indirect. Tracy is announcing to the assembled wedding guests that she and her fiancé have called off the wedding. She asks Dexter what to say next, and he feeds her the lines a speech saying that two years ago I did you out of wedding in this house and I hope to make it up to you by going through with it now as originally planned. Even their brief exchange afterwards doesn’t contain any “I’ve always loved yous”, but the words they do use (”Are you sure?” “Not in the least; but I’ll risk it–will you?” “Oh–I’ll be yare now–I’ll promise to be yare!” “Be whatever you like, you’re my Redhead.”) are somehow more meaningful.
One of my favorite Georgette Heyers, The Grand Sophy, is similar in that hero’s and heroine’s feelings are not expressed either in dialogue or, this being a novel, in inner monologue. Sophy and Charles spar from their first meeting. Perhaps the closest we get to a window into Charles’s feelings is the moment when he looks at Sophy across his young sister’s sickbed as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Charles does ask Sophy to marry him but even then neither says “I love you” in so many words. In fact his proposal is Will you marry me, vile and abominable girl that you are? and her reply is Yes, but, mind, it is only to save my neck from being wrung!
I first read The Grand Sophy at about the same age I first saw The Philadelphia Story. I remember reading the scenes between Sophy and Charles over and over, trying to tease out who felt what when, trying to decipher clues to their emotions (just as I would look for clues to Tracy’s and Dexter’s feelings whenever I saw The Philadelphia Story). Much as I love Heyers like Venetia and Frederica, in which there is much more exploration of the characters’ feelings, there’s something fascinating about a story in which so much is unexpressed.
Writing this blog, I tried to think of other stories in which the romance develops without the feelings being verbalized. Mulder and Scully’s love story unfolds without the words being spoken and without the viewer even being quite sure what is happening when. Yet the clues are there when you rewatch the episodes (one of the things I love about rewatching Seasons 6 and 7 in particular). Mulder’s I don’t want to risk–losing you in Requiem (the Season 7 finale) is much more powerful than a more explicit declaration of feeling.
Thinking back to my Declarations, Resolutions, & Other Heart-Stopping Moments post, Gil and Ingold in Barbara Hambly's Darwath Trilogy don’t express their feelings until that last scene where Gil asks Ingold if he wants her to stay with him. Their feelings for each other are more palpable than Charles’s and Sophy’s but expressed in gestures and often as much in what is not said as in what is said. The same is true of Holmes and Russell in Laurie King's Mary Russell books. The books are first person, so the reader is privy to more of Russell’s feelings than in some of other stories mentioned. But Russell and Holmes never express those feelings to each other. And Holmes finds a way to propose without putting any of it into words (You do realize how potentially disastrous this whole thing is? I am old and set in my ways. I will give you little affection and a great deal of irritation, though heaven knows you’re aware of how difficult I can be). Neither has said “I love you” to the other through the eight books of the series thus far. Though Holmes’s behavior in those books perhaps contradicts his claim that he would give Russell “little affection and a great deal of irritation.” In fact, to me one of the most romantic lines in the series was in Locked Rooms in which he says (don’t have my copy in front of me so I’m paraphrasing) that he doesn’t think the the sun rising in the west would cause his heart to stop but The sight of my wife going over the rail of a ship might have done the trick however.
My own Charles and Mélanie don’t often verbalize their feelings (in fact one reader on my website asked if I ever intended to dramatize the moment where they first say "I love you" to each other). Neither says “I love you" in Beneath a Silent Moon, including in the final scene. Charles instead tells Mel he “needs her” which somehow seemed a stronger declaration to me in that moment. They do say “I love you” in the first chapter of Secrets of a Lady (before their happy jewel box life completely falls apart) but even then it’s with the slightly embarrassed acknowledgment that the words can seem a cliché (Will it sounds hopelessly redundant if I say I love you too?). Charles tells Mel he loves her again, late in the book, but the words are clipped, almost harsh, wrung out of him by extreme emotion (as is his first declaration of love in a vignette I posted recently on my website). Charles and Mélanie talk in code more than verbalizing their feelings directly. In that, I suspect I was influenced by many of the stories discussed in this post.What do you think of love stories in which the romance is expressed in subtext? Do you like them or do you prefer more explicit declarations? Writers, do you find characters who only admit their feelings in code easier or more difficult to write than characters who express their feelings more freely?