Tuesday, September 02, 2014

A Discovery of Witches

The last of my pleasant summer reads was surprisingly diverting, the surprise because I continued to read it after discovering it was a vampire romance novel. The entire genre has previously caused me to snort with contempt. In my 50 years, I've read only one book involving vampires, a well-reviewed Anne Rice novel, and that was so long ago I can't recall the title. I've fastidiously avoided even learning what the "Twilight" series is about beyond an inescapable awareness that it involves teen vampires.

I suppose if a vampire romance is to appeal to a middle-aged book snob it helps if it is written by a middle-aged professor of history, and so Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches was my discovery that maybe vampires could be romantic after all. Previously, the blood-drinking habits of a vampire would be sufficient for me to disqualify him as a romantic hero, but I had not considered the compensatory charms that can be accrued in an exceptionally long life. Imagine a man who has lived for centuries and shows up for dinner with a bottle of 1811 Chateau Yquem that he purchased from the estate the year it was made. The library at his castle in France is filled with rare first editions, many inscribed to him by the authors. Among the treasures is a Gutenberg Bible, a first printing of On the Origin of the Species with a personal letter from Darwin tucked in, and a folio of handwritten manuscripts titled "Will's Playes." Perhaps I, too, could overlook his thirst for blood. Besides, it's not like he needs to drink that all the time!

Reading this novel over the lazy Labor Day weekend provided me the opportunity to consider the essential attributes of the romantic hero. In high school, when my adult literary tastes had not yet developed, I devoured those formulaic Harlequin romances. The hero was always handsome, fabulously wealthy and not as arrogant as he first seems. I will not argue with those who say that every romance writer since Jane Austen has been attempting to recreate her Mr. Darcy.

As I was trying to account for my enchantment with the dashing, 1500-year-old Matthew Clairmont that chained me to my front porch with a book for the entirety of summer's last long weekend, I became aware of what may be a universal characteristic of the romantic hero that previously had escaped my notice. In every romantic novel that has charmed me (as well as millions of other women), be it from an erudite writer such as Harkness or a churn-them-out dimestore novelist, the hero is a protector. (Hear me out; this isn't about rescuing the damsel in distress.) In my personal memory bank of romantic literary heroes, I can think of some exceptions to the rule of handsome (Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility) and several exceptions to the rule of wealthy (Peeta in The Hunger Games, Jamie Fraser in the Outlander series), but I can't think of a single book with a significant female following in which the hero does not protect the heroine, even when she is more than capable of taking care of herself.

Most of our contemporary heroines have no need of a knight in shining armor. They are not Jane Austen's gentle ladies who are prevented by social customs from earning their own way in the world. Our daughters read about Katniss Everdeen, whose skill with a bow helps her feed her family and eventually overthrow her despotic government. Katniss both protects and is protected; she exceeds Peeta in every survival skill except charm, yet Peeta's self-appointed raison d'etre through three books is to safeguard Katniss. (She also protects Peeta, although not with the same single-mindedness). The Outlander's Claire is a woman of courage and accomplishment, yet Jamie is her unrelenting bulwark against a hostile world. Midway through the series, Claire and daughter Brianna are discussing career callings, and Brianna asks Claire what her father's calling is. Claire answers (paraphrasing), "He's a man."

Jamie and Claire

Protection need not involve a sword or a vampiric bite on the neck of a witch who dared offend his lady love. Recall Mr. Darcy, the model of the romantic gentleman, who is Elizabeth's shield against malicious gossip, whether he is silencing it with a sharp remark to Mr. Bingley's catty sister or saving the Bennet family from social disgrace by arranging the foolish Lydia's marriage. The hero provides the form of protection needed.

This protectiveness is rooted and powered in the unselfishness of love, putting the beloved's interests ahead of your own, which may partially explain the magnetism of these stories. But self-sacrifice isn't enough; results matter. An incompetent champion will not do.

Since my teen years, the most frustrating love triangle in literature for me has been Scarlett-Rhett-Ashley. Scarlett is Katniss' spiritual great-grandmother. She doesn't need rescuing, despite often being in distress. Scarlett takes care of herself and everyone else, turning to Rhett on only a couple of occasions when she gets in over her head. My frustration is with Scarlett's obsession with the vapid Ashley, who in every respect save one is the ideal romantic character: handsome, intelligent, honorable, kind, thoughtful, loving. The missing element? He can't protect her! He can't manage anything! Scarlett rescues Ashley repeatedly; he gives her nothing but lovely speeches and shattered dreams. We may believe Ashley loves Scarlett and spurns her for noble reasons involving duty and honor, that perhaps he is even acting in her best interests as he recognizes their ultimate incompatibility. But we aren't moved by this type of self-sacrifice. Rhett, by contrast, will defy public opinion for Scarlett. He'll steal a horse for her and, we suspect, commit murder. Rhett is the competent hero, and woe to Scarlett that she can't see it in time.

Many years ago, my husband I took a weekend class based on the popular book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. The lesson centered on a primary distinction between men and women. According to the author, when women talk to men about a problem they are having, men want to offer a solution, but all women really want is for them to listen. This may be true in our real lives, but our most popular romantic fiction suggests our fantasies play by other rules.

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