Is romance dead? I fear it is. How could Jane Austen have written her novels about the slow, exquisite torture of love in an age of Grindr and Tinder, when bored singletons search for one-night stands with a few clicks of their mobiles?
Austen’s heroines worked hard to find “The One” by overcoming obstacles of social class, parental disapproval and the law. But these days it’s far too easy for romance to flourish.
Our approval of same-sex marriage shows that finding a soul mate is considered a right that should be freely available to everyone. That’s surely good for society, but bad for the writers of romantic fiction, the genre that has given us the happiest and most enjoyable of books and films. As we see in period dramas, it’s when there are terrible obstacles between couples that romance thrives best. Despite the fading of romance in real life, it’s still alive and well in our dreams.
Many of us grew up expecting to fall in love, get married and have children – in that order. Although lots of people’s lives no longer follow that narrative, so many of our books and films still assume it’s the right way to live.
If you look back over the whole sweep of history, though, you’ll see that this is quite a recent approach to the business of life and love. In Tudor times, people considered a marriage relationship to kick off with a property negotiation. A girl’s parents would find her a partner of equal or enhanced wealth. She might then marry him before puberty, and only consummate the relationship when she was old enough for child-bearing. Children would inevitably follow. Then finally, perhaps, with shared life experience behind them, the couple might fall in love.
The Georgians went on to create new rules for love. As I discover in BBC4’s A Very British Romance (above), they invented the genre of the romance novel, in which women’s thoughts and feelings became captured in fiction. Well-off Georgians, keen to display their elegance and breeding, became convinced that they were vulnerable to extreme feelings.
To the Victorians, we owe the commercialisation of romance, with their creation of the Valentine’s card and the giving of roses. Middle-class couples were starting to feel that romance, finding a soulmate, was as important as making a match of which your family approved. Next came the “New Women” of the late-19th century, convinced that campaigning for female suffrage was more important that finding a man.
By the 20th century, the concept of “dating” had arrived from America via feature films and soon diamond rings were available, prompting extravagant proposals of marriage.
What can be left for the 21st century to achieve? Only, I fear, the death of romance. Without the obstacles of sex, gender and class, romance is ruined. It’s all too easy. Because as we all know, the course of true love never did run smooth.