Sunday, August 22, 2010

What's in a Kiss?

We writers of historical romances spend a lot of time trying to get across how our heroes think, feel and behave when in love. But do we get it right?

Sir Leslie Stephen, reviewing Jane Eyre in the Cornhill Magazine in 1877, thinks not. He says of Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester:

‘He does not appear to me to be a real character at all, except as a reflection of a certain side of his creator….He is supposed to be specially simple and masculine, and yet he is as self-conscious as a young lady on her first appearance in society, and can do nothing but discourse about his feelings… Set him beside any man’s character of a man, and one feels at once that he has no real solidity or vitality in him. He has, of course, strong nerves and muscles, but they are articles which can be supplied in unlimited quantities …


So, how do men think, feel and behave when in love? The diaries of the artist Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846) may help to answer this question.

Haydon liked sex as much as the next man. In April 1813, he wrote: ‘I felt this morning an almost irresistible inclination to go down to Greenwich and have a delicious Tumble with the Girls. … After a short struggle, I seized my brush, knowing the consequences of yielding to my disposition, & that tho’ it might begin today, it would not end with it.’

He was twenty-seven and beginning to look for something more than a quick ‘Tumble’. In August, he wrote: 'I begin to be weary, heartily weary, of vice. There may be pleasure in guilty enjoyment, for fear of discovery, & snatched in the hot, icy fury of passion, yet surely the confidence, the rapture of legitimate pleasure with a lovely creature, is a million times more exquisite.’

In April 1815, he meets a girl he fancies. It is evening; he is ‘accidentally’ alone with her:

She sits - you venture to sit near her! You slip gently from the edge of your own chair to the edge of hers, which you affect to conceal! and which she affects not to see! an involuntary sigh; you put your arm on the back of her chair without daring to touch her lovely shoulder - awed, for fear of offending, you dare, agitated and shaken, to touch her soft hand! She withdraws it not! You press with a start of passion the gentle, helpless hand to your full and burning lips!’

It reminds me of the Goin’ Courtin’ song in the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers:

‘You sidle up, she moves away
Then the strategy comes into play.’

And this is what happens next:
‘Your floating eyes meet hers, looking out under her black locks with lustrous tenderness. Down sinks her lovely head under your heated cheek, and you feel her heavenly breath, breathing quickly into your neck! You move your lips gently to meet hers, but are unable to reach it, buried as it is in your neck. O God! with the look of an Angel she turns up her exquisite mouth, & as you kiss it, your lips cling, with a lingering at every little separation and you suck ecstasy till your brain is steeped in steam! You press her with an intensity of grasp. She suffers all, trembling, depending, smiling. Does not this speak all a man could wish?’

The ending is delightful: ‘One bounds home like a deer, and rushes to rest that one may dream.’

Haydon, plainly, got a huge kick out of that kiss. And that’s all it was. They were disturbed by a servant and he comments that her reaction was ‘a dreaming sort of distraction at having been kissed by a Man’. Though, of course, that may just be male fantasy. Nevertheless, he obviously felt like a conquering hero.

Haydon’s diaries were private, written for his own pleasure. What I think is so interesting about them is that they offer a rare glimpse into how men really feel about love. For me, these extracts are an eye-opener.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Anonymous said...

I think most men's response would be a bit more earthy than Haydon's.


Jane Jackson said...

I was fascinated by the examples you quoted, Elizabeth. As a writer of romance I am constantly trying to strike a balance between creating male characters who think and respond exactly as real men do, and giving them the emotional reactions women yearn for. Referring to the earlier anonymous comment: Men are hard-wired to pass on their genes, which makes sex a priority. But to conclude that sex is ALL they want is insulting and inaccurate. So is the assumption that only women experience strong emotional reaction or attachment. Much of the most moving poetry written about love was/is written by men.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thanks to both Anonymous and Jane for your comments.

Anonymous: Are you saying that men don't enjoy the delicate pleasures of the chase any more?

It is true that, nowadays, we live in a highly sexualized society, one has only to look at modern advertisements to see that. More openness about sex has a number of pluses, but we have lost something, too.

I agree with Jane's point that men are capable of strong emotional attachments as well as just wanting sex.

If Haydon has just been after sex, he could have had it anytime, no strings attached, from the Greenwich girls.

It's perfectly obvious from his diary, that he thoroughly enjoyed the rather different, more softly, softly approach with his 'lovely girl'.

I would be sorry to think that that sort of wooing was now obsolete.

Anonymous said...

@Jane Jackson & Elizabeth Hawksley:

I didn't say that men didn't have emotional as well as physical reactions. I'm merely saying that they are far more likely to couch them in earthier terms than Haydon did. His statement was a bit too consciously "romantic" in wording and tone. I agree that men can feel as deeply as women, perhaps more deeply in some ways, but verbalization of it is more often than not either totally physical or referred to in personal physical reactions.


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

To Anonymous: Fair enough. But Haydon was a Romantic - he was a friend of Keats! You must make allowances for the zeitgeist of the times.

I'm interested in your comment than men can feel 'perhaps more deeply in some ways'. Could you tell us what these ways are? I'm sure Jane would like to know your views as well.

We're both novelists and we like to get things right!

Jan Jones said...

That's lovely, Elizabeth!

Nicola Cornick said...

Fascinating post and debate, Elizabeth! I first came across Benjamin Haydon in Penelope Hughes-Hallett's wonderful book The Immortal Dinner. I love the way he expresses himself here; it seems in character both for the man himself and his time, even if these days the language may sound quite flowery.

I think when men fall in love they can fall very hard indeed, both with the object of their affection and with the idea of love. I agree with Jane that as authors we write a composite of how a real man might feel and behave and how a woman might want him to express that love.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thanks for adding to the debate, Nicola.

I first came across Haydon in 'A Sultry Month - scenes of London Literary Life in 1846' by Alethea Hayter. It's astonishing how many writers and artists' lives crossed during that one month (18th June - 13th July): Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Wordsworth, the Carlyles, as well as, of course, Haydon.

It gives you a real glimpse into the age and who knew who and how they inter-reacted.

Returning to male-female relations: in my early novels, I allowed my heroes to speak at length about their feelings. I wouldn't do that now. Nowadays, they express their affection more by doing things for the heroine rather that launching into impassioned speech, which, frankly, is unreal. At least, I've never come across a man who does it! And if I did, I'd be suspicious!

Anonymous said...

@ Elizabeth Hawksley:
Mmm! No matter how I answer your question, I'm in trouble, I think.
Actually, you've answered it in your response. On many occasions in romance fiction, heroine insists that the hero say "I love you" before she succumbs, words which most can say without effort if they choose. For most men, I think, words, even those words, simply can't express anything substantial. Something else is required, but what, amongst humans, replaces words? We can say that actions speak louder, but only if they are properly interpreted and there's the rub. The very person one loves IS the interpreter and the interpreter very often requires words, words which have no real substance.

Sarah Mallory said...

Great post, Elizabeth. What an interesting debate this has opened up! As novelists we have to interpret both the words AND actions of our protagonists, and ensure our readers know what is going on.

Since so many romances are based on misunderstandings, we can end up going round in circles!