Montanan - Volume 13, Number 3
by Beth Judy
oure sitting in the Hair Barn on a busy day; the cutting chairs are full. Mary, Estelle, and Diane sit in a row, under hairdryers, their noses deep in romance paperbacks.
"Hush, Estelle. Mary, tell her to quit that heavy breathing," Diane hisses. "I cant help it," whimpers Estelle. "The lovers are wandering in the forest. They make whoopee at every other tree."
Mary growls, without taking her eyes off her own book, "Enjoy it; its not gonna last. I read that one last week. Tristan and Isolde."
Estelle throws the novel down. "Youve spoiled it! When you were in the middle of Sir Gawain and you begged me to tell you the end and whether the Green Knight was really Burt Reynolds, did I so much as peep?"
Diane is engrossed again. "`Shh, both of you! Parcivals sweeping his lady off her feet."
What s wrong with this picture?
Nothing-if Joanne Charbonneau had her way. In fact, the visiting associate professor of liberal studies and alumna would be overjoyed if Estelle, Mary, Diane and millions of other modern romance readers found their way back to the real thing: the medieval romances that are the precursors of todays Harlequins, Silhouettes, and Temptations.
Why has romance literature survived? How do todays stories differ from the originals, and what do the differences reveal? What might medieval romances still have to offer modern readers-Estelle, Diane, Mary, and the rest of us? After all, an estimated twenty million Canadian and American women read romance novels at the rate of twenty a month. The books account for half of all trade paperbacks sold, generating $775 million a year.
In her five years at The University of Montana, Charbonneau, a bright-eyed, vibrant woman, has explored these questions in courses she has taught on the evolution of romance literature. Charbonneau says romances flowered forth in twelfth-century Europe as Western literatures first long narratives on subjects other than battles and heroes. Never before had love between men and women been deemed worthy of literary attention, nor had women played major roles as protagonists, sharing equal billing with men in titles.
Romances were the product of a spectacular convergence of literary influences: newly translated classical Greek and Latin literature, in which the only important love was between men; Arabic love poetry, unabashedly sensual; and sacred love poetry associated with the Virgin Mary.
The survival of the form, says Charbonneau, indicates that romances satisfy something basic in the Western psyche-the need for connection with another, for a mirror or a sense of wholeness. "After all," she reminds us, "the first fact in human life is the cutting of the umbilical cord: separation." In Christian and Jewish traditions, separation equals expulsion from the garden, so union equals paradise regained.
Medieval romances explore this archetype of the lover as the way to completion or fulfillment-and find it lacking. "In Erec and Enide," Charbonneau says, "the guy gets the girl in the first few pages-unlike modern romances, where that is the whole story. Then he spends so much time in bed with her, he neglects his knightly duties." In Tristan and Isolde, two young people forsake family and titles to live together for years as exiles in the forest. But as the idyll grows old, Tristan and Isolde feel their identities slipping. "In finding each other, theyve actually lost themselves," Charbonneau says.
"The real story in the medieval romances," says Charbonneau, "is often how lovers regain their whole identities, how they balance private desire and public duty-a tension we still feel today. In the old romances, to love someone deeply was explored both psychologically and socially." Many of the stories dont end happily. In the original romances, Charbonneau says, "Love is this incredible force that rips you apart. Lovers wander as fools; they go mad. But suffering was also believed to ennoble, transform, the soul. Weve lost that now. We want glorious passion and sex without a price. We want love to be a totally positive thing. We want love, not suffering, to transform us. Most people today forget that, etymologically, passion means suffering-as in the passion of Christ."
Does love fare better in contemporary literary writing? Depictions may be more complex, more faithful to reality, Charbonneau says, but love in the modern novel no longer ennobles. "You go through all the anguish, only to end up in hopelessness and despair." In Tar Baby by novelist Toni Morrison, for example, the protagonists cant overcome the obstacles between them, despite their great love for each other. In the end, they go their separate ways.
Charbonneau has firsthand experience with the intricacies of love. For twenty-five years, she has been partners with Richard Rice, also a professor in liberal studies. Charbonneau calls their marriage "mature romantic love, with intellectual kinship and real friendship." She laments that genre romances rarely present this kind of multilayered complexity. "Abiding love," she says, "is just not an ideal put forth to readers of modern romances."
Charbonneau also has firsthand experience with the modern genre romance. She sent off for the formulaic guidelines romance publishers provide and began writing one herself. For six months she chronicled the struggles between a hotshot movie director filming a historical drama in Cornwall and the medieval literature professor he hires as an adviser. Charbonneau strove for her characters to meet on many levels, not just the few she notes in most modern genre romances. But as she wrote, she found herself buying into some of the beliefs that modern romances are built on.
"The novel was heading toward the notion that love does conquer all, does create its own complete and perfect world," Charbonneau says. "I began to believe my characters were perfectly suited for each other. In real life, love conquers a lot, but not everything. You need patience, forgiveness and all these other things-real friendship outside the relationship, work, community. In the original romances, lovers are queens and princes. They have peace to keep and their land and the people on it to take care of.
"Love on an everyday basis has to do with compromise and sacrifice-by both people. Its good were still talking about the power of love. But modern romances dont acknowledge whats really hard: that you can have weeks of boredom, anger and frustration and still have a strong relationship...Too often we give up on love. Love is hard and messy."