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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 May 2009

A Fine Romance

Over on Teach Me Tonight, the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (nicknamed “Jasper” or “Aspire”, depending on how one wants to play with initials) is holding a fundraiser for its fledgling program by asking folks to donate $2 dollars in honor of their favorite romantic couple, either fictional or real. Fictional is easy, but the real got me thinking about historical couples, and how very hard it is to pin down those which one might consider a true romance.

As Tracy has discussed so articulately on this site, a romance needn’t run smooth to be true. Some of the most compelling romances in fiction are those with a distinctly bumpy trajectory, like Harriet and Lord Peter in the Dorothy Sayers books. But so many of the romances in history land somewhere beyond bumpy. Explosive might be a better term, as in jumping on a mine and scattering the resulting pieces over a large area of territory. Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine come to mind. Their initial passion was certainly legendary, but the corrosive aftermath shaped the fate of more than one kingdom. In the comments on Teach Me Tonight, someone put in a vote for Abelard and Heloise. While they have become a byword for true love, having the one castrated and the other banished to a nunnery is generally not deemed a desirable end to a romantic attachment.

Part of the problem for history, as opposed to fiction, may simply be that we get to see too much. Instead of being allowed to imagine the happily ever after, we have the sometimes unhappy sequels arrayed before us, casting the unhappy light of hindsight on what might have looked properly fairy tale-like if cut off at the appropriate moment. In my last book, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, two of my modern characters, a history grad student and her boyfriend, have a debate on this topic:

“They lived and loved and died,” said Colin briskly. “They lost money, they died in wars, they suffered broken hearts. It isn’t all trumpets and glory.”

“I know, I know… I think that’s why one sees more happily ever afters in fiction than biographies. It’s not that the two trajectories are necessarily so different, but in fiction you can take the moment when everyone is happy and just clip off the thread of the narrative there, right at that trumpets and glory moment.”

“Even in fiction, isn’t it more interesting when you look at the whole picture, with the bad as well as the good?” argued Colin. “I’d rather know the whole story, even if it ends on a low note.”

“Warts and all?” I said, quoting the famous phrase about Cromwell. “Perhaps. It may be more interesting. But sometimes it’s less satisfying.”


Every now and then, you just need to believe that everything can be frozen in that one moment where everything is going right.


Another problem may be that the bias of recorded history tends towards the annals of the great. As more than one doomed Shakespearean king has informed us, the head that wears the crown seldom lies easy. While it is possible to ferret out the odd royal love story (Victoria and Albert, Charles I and Henrietta Maria), those marriages that were happy for the principles were often viewed as bad for the kingdom. Henrietta Maria’s influence on Charles has often been cited as one of the causes of the English Civil War and Victoria was roundly criticized for her excessive mourning of Albert, to the detriment of state affairs. It needn't be a crown. The same caveats apply to ducal coronets, baronial bonnets, and other exalted chapeaux. Just look at the crazy career of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Below the level of the haut ton, one does find fragmentary evidence of happy couples-- the seventeenth century diary of Ralph Josselin records a warm and happy marriage between the diarist and his wife—but it tends to be the more glamorous and disastrous pairings that stick in the popular imagination, the Napoleons and Josephines of the world, dramatic and doomed.

Having wandered rather away from the point, who are your favorite historical couples? Can one have "romance" in the historical context, or is it a misplaced concept?

10 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Lauren! This is one of the reasons why, though I love to write about real events and include real historical people, I prefer to write about fictional main characters, so I can control where the story goes...

I've always liked the story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire's, younger daughter Harriet Cavendish, who married Granville Leveson-Gower, a handsome diplomat who had been her aunt's lover for many years (but was no longer when they married). They raised his two illegitimate children with her aunt and five children of their own, presided over the British Embassy in Paris for many years, and seem to have had a very happy marriage. As a bride, Harriet wrote that Granville "could make an arid desert smile." Her letters are full of wonderful glimpses of their married life. There's one where she's writing to her sister from an inn room on a trip to the Continent and breaks off because Granville has come in with a hot water bottle.

I've used Harriet and Granville as minor characters more than once. Some of the letters in the recent reissue of "Beneath a Silent Moon" are (fictional) letters between Harriet and her childhood friend Emily Cowper. Emily's love story with Lord Palmerston is another one that ends happily, if not precisely along romance novel lines. She was married to Lord Cowper at 18 and what romantic bloom there was seems to have quickly worn off. She and Palmerston were lovers for years (though not exclusively, and while Lord Cowper was apparently a complacent husband, Palmerston was prone to jealousy). Eventually, after she was widowed, Emily married Palmerston. At least one of her five Cowper children was quite definitely Palmerston's and likely one or two others. The one boy eventually added Palmerston's name to his own. When Palmerston was Prime Minister, a visiting dignitary commented on how very much his son resembled him, not realizing the son was nominally his stepson.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

What a great concept -- I cannot narrow down to one fictional couple but since I have read more than a thousand stories with happy endings, my confusion should be understandable.

As for historical figures how about John and Abigail Adams?

3:32 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The question seems to imply "political" couples, though I don't know why it should. So in my perpetual-English-major way, I nominate George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. Short on glamor, perhaps, but long on brains, mutual respect and support, fame, and, I believe, ardor.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

William the Conqueror and his Matilda. While one wouldn't wish their sons on anybody as husband material, they seem to have a deeply happy marriage from anything I've ever heard.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Sarah S. G. Frantz said...

Isn't part of the issue also that the blow-ups and unhappy endings make for better continued narrative? That when the endings are happy, the story DOES end there and we don't hear anything more of them, because there's just no story there anymore? :)

And thanks so much for letting people know about IASPR and its fund-raising effort. You're super-cool, Lauren! As is anyone who donates....

:)

4:36 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Great post, Lauren! And you make an excellent point about happy royal marriages not necessarily being good for the kingdom. One of those was the marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, which I researched extensively for NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES. His Privy Council was appalled when the king presented them with a fait accompli, particularly as they were in the midst of negotiations for a diplomatic marriage to Bona of Savoy.

Here's the view of Edward's contemporaries on his love match with the commoner Elizabeth Woodville:

“They answered that she was not his match, however good and however fair she might be, and he must know well that she was no wife for a prince such as himself; for she was not the daughter of a duke or earl, but her mother, the Duchess of Bedford, had married a simple knight, so that she was the child of a duchess and the niece of the count of St. Pol, still she was no wife for him.” Additionally, the Council argued that their union served no foreign or domestic diplomatic purpose, and might anger or alienate the king of France.

Furthermore, Elizabeth was a widow with two young sons who would expect preferment commensurate with their new station. The royal marriage would be an expensive one too, the councilors insisted. The new queen-consort had eleven siblings (ten of whom survived to adulthood). They would become the crown’s beneficiaries as well, their social standing elevated to a level appropriate for a king’s in-laws. Brilliant marriages would have to be found for Elizabeth’s sisters and positions at court secured for her brothers.

The Church had a problem with the sovereign’s surprise marriage as well. It tended to be reluctant to bless a second union—even if one party was the king—on the grounds that such marriages were motivated by lust, which in the groom’s case was particularly true. It was a popular theory at the time that death didn’t automatically end a marriage because the spouses would eventually be reunited in heaven.. The more pragmatic reason for the Church’s view was that England was a land-based society and property was inherited upon the death of a spouse, so a remarriage threatened the inheritance of any issue from the previous union.

And speaking of children from a prior marriage, Edward’s Privy Councilors also feared that when Elizabeth’s two sons, Thomas and Richard Grey, matured, they might form a rival faction to her heirs by Edward.
However, Edward was never faithful to Elizbeth, even though their match was made in haste and passion.

Another of my favorite real life happy marriages which literally lasted till death did they part, was Nicholas and Alexandra. Never mind what they did to Russia; they raised an exemplary family and never cheated on each other, despite each of them coming from families where marital infidelity was de rigeur. I've got excerpts from some of their love letters in NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES and they show us such a different side of the imperial couple.

6:14 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've always had a soft spot for the marriage of Sarah Jennings and John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. She loved him a great deal, even more than her children. Also, Winston and Clementine Churchill always spring to mind.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Maryan Wherry said...

Woo-hoo, Mary! Thanks for the reminder that there was at least one happy couple in America. I'm leaning more toward Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings--not that anyone could ever accuse Jefferson (or Adams) of being "romantic."

9:04 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

The most famous (literary) lovers' stories tend to end unhappily: Launcelot & Guinevere; Antony and Cleopatra; Scarlett and Rhett.
I wonder why they're famous/favorites?

9:12 AM  
Blogger Eigon said...

My favourite love story is between Llewelyn the Great of Gwynnedd and Princess Joan (or Siwan, in Welsh). It wasn't a love match - it was a jolly good idea for Llewelyn to marry King John's daughter - but they obviously came to love each other very deeply. She committed adultery with one of the de Braoses, who was held hostage at the Welsh court - he was hanged, but she was (eventually) forgiven.
As much as anything was, it was Wales' Golden Age.

12:25 PM  

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