What is Romantic?

"You soothe my soul, you fill it with so tender a sentiment that it is sweet to live during the time that I see you."  Julie de L'Espinasse, French woman of letters, to Comte Hippolyte, her one-time lover, 1774

A writer friend said to me recently, "I find it amazing that you can write romantic novels set in eighteenth century France.  I find nothing romantic about that time period."

I was stunned. 

Frankly, I find it amazing that there lives a soul who does not find 18th Century France romantic.  I could argue that it was Madame de Staël, a citizen of Paris, who wrote the bestseller, De l'Allemagne, which coined the term "romanticism".  Indeed, the intellectually astute author influenced literary tastes and the passionate ideals of countless men and women throughout the world.  Her beliefs helped form the bedrock for modern day notions on romance.   

I could point out that some of the most romantic images to ever be created using canvas and paint were created in 18th Century France.  I could use de Staël, Boucher and Fragonard to further my argument, but this is not a literary or artistic blog nor have I ever made pretensions of possessing an intellect keen enough to engage in protracted discussions on matters of higher learning.

For those of you who do not read romance novels, allow me a moment to digress.  Scotland is the setting of choice among many romance readers.  Something about a big, brawny man stomping around the heather-filled hills, kilt swaying in the breeze, broadsword in hand, makes them swoon (More germane, it prompts them to plonk down their hard earned cash to by armfuls of Scottish set novels, propelling the romance genre to the number one spot in Mass Market Sales). 

I am not immune to a buff man in a skirt.  I've seen Gerard Butler, Liam Neeson, and a younger Sean Connery in their clan garb and can certainly understand the appeal, but give me a well-dressed man who is as skilled with his foil as he is with his tongue (After all, the French were known for their cunning linguistics and their cunnilingus) and I swoon.  Frankly, I would rather watch my man crossing épées with a wicked foe than skipping through a field of pretty purple flowers.  

But that's just me.

My friend's comment inspired in me a desire to ponder the meaning of romance.  I pulled out my copy of Love Letters: An Anthology of Passion by Michelle Lovric and passed an enjoyable hour reading the heart-stirring love letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, Robert Browning, Edith Wharton, and Horatio Nelson. 

After reading the last letter in the book, written by Dylan Thomas to his wife wherein he promises to "come back alive and as deep in love with you as a cormorant dives, as an anemone grows, as Neptune breathes, as the sea is deep," I decided to apply a more critical approach to investigating the matter.

I turned to old Merriam Webster, which defines
romance as a love affair; an ardent emotional attachment or involvement between people; a mysterious or fascinating quality or appeal, as of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful.

I submit eighteenth century France was the most adventure-filled, heroic, and strangely beautiful time in history.  Daring duels in mist shrouded fields.  Gossamer gowns.  Intrigues at masquerade balls.  Secret fan languages.  Romantic and dangerous liaisons.  Gilded chateaux.  Glamorous kings and queens.  Aristocrats who stood defiantly against a new order, willing to sacrifice their fortunes and very lives to preserve the ideals they held dear.

How can one not find 18th century France a romantic time period, with the Chevalier de Saint-Georges living in the middle of it?

For those of you unfamiliar with Saint-Georges, he was a deadly swordsman, accomplished lover, skilled equestrian, gifted musician, and unmatched lover.  A flesh and bone man who lived a mythic life.  He was, in short, a hero. Add to his character sketch that he was of African descent and it mystifies one to think he was able to accomplish so much in a time that was not kind to people of his color!

A contemporary wrote of Saint-Georges:
"He is the most accomplished man in Europe, in riding, running, shooting, fencing, dancing, music. He will hit the button - any button on the coat or waistcoat of the greatest masters. He will hit a crown-piece in the air with a pistol-ball."
If the Chevalier de Saint-George is not a dashing, romantic figure, perhaps I should set down my pen and stop writing romance novels.

But that will never happen.
For after spending this sun-dappled day reading ancient love letters and chatting with friends and writers about their thoughts on romance, I realize it is about two people who arouse in each other unswerving devotion and all-consuming passions.  Romance knows not particular era or setting.  It has occurred in Civil War America, Ancient Greece, amidst heather-filled Scottish fields, in the ballrooms of Regency England, and yes, in Revolutionary France.
I have been reminded that romance is subjective.  For that reason, I would never imply that a particular time period is not romantic.  I am not attempting to convert the kilt lovers, but I do hope to throw a well-aimed dart, to make my mark on the bull's-eye of romance settings. 

All I can hope is that after reading a few of my upcoming blog entries, my gentle readers will have a better understanding of my passion for 18th Century France.  Perhaps they will even feel a new passion kindled within them...


Stephanie said...

Well, you have me convinced! :)

Unknown said...

I, too, am becoming a believer. Je t'aime.