The pleasures of romance fiction by Sian O’Gorman

While reading the feminist classic, My Brilliant Career, many years ago, I realised that not all stories have what I would consider a happy ending. The deliciously handsome (and rich and kind) Harold travels the arid, broiling Australian outback in order to propose to wild-haired, ambitious Sybylla. His ardour could only have increased when he sees her, muddy and exhausted, pulling a cow out of a swamp. My love-starved, teenage heart soared. This was it. They would fall into each other’s arms and they could live happily together in his lovely, well-watered estate. Except… they don’t.

It is only now, when I am (slightly) worldlier can I see that Miles Franklin chose the greater ending, a realistic and powerful close to a wonderful novel. But, even now, I still burn with disappointment that love did not conquer all. Sybylla chose not to be ‘rescued’ by the handsome prince but plumped for a career. 

And of course she’s right, and eminently more sensible, adventurous and brave. Reading is often, as we know, an escape, and even I, a card-carrying feminist, can put my politics to one side.

One favourite novel is Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, an immensely clever and enjoyable read, a whole life of one woman, the wonderfully unsentimental Claudia. Much to her surprise, working as a journalist during the war, she falls in love with Tom, a soldier in the desert. One day he goes missing and the image of her, intellectual and irreligious, desperately praying for him in Cairo cathedral still lingers.

I don’t think I am alone when reading Persuasion, for example, to hurry to the moments Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth are together. And it is made all the more delicious by the fact that neither can speak openly about the past, constrained by the rigid societal manners of Regency England. Anne can only rely on luck and her superior being to shine through (which of course it does! Yay!) for Frederick to declare himself.

Of course, novel-quality passion rarely happens in real life. We all have moments of romance, intermittently brightening the grey days of normal existence that could be worthy of a paragraph: sheltering from a thunderstorm together in Notre Dame, sharing spaghetti in a tiny trattoria like Lady and the Tramp (romance does not end with humans), meeting that boy you loved in school in a shopping centre in Milton Keyes and your eyes meet and…

But these moments are fleeting, which is all right and proper. We have more important things to be doing than constantly gazing into our loved one’s eyes all day. Not only would it get boring but when would you find time to eat or earn some money? Romance in real life has to be intermittent or you’d go mad. But there is a need, a desire, to believe that our favourite characters stay in those moments forever, that they experience eternal love on our behalf, while we go out to work. Just like Sybylla.