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.