Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

WHEN PEANUT BUTTER TASTES BAD

I've been meaning to write about this for an age, but a recent article in The Guardian tipped me into action mode. Where The Guardian leads, I follow.
"Unrequited love is nearly a universal experience. It is the stuff of literature (Cyrano de Bergerac had it badly but carried it nobly) and of deep despair. A study of 155 men and women in the Journal Of Personality And Psychology, from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, found that only 2% had never experienced unrequited love (defined as an intense, passionate yearning that is not reciprocated). The study counted being rejected and rejecting someone as such an 'experience'. Men were a third more likely to have suffered unrequited love because of rejection."

Continues the wise Dr Dillner,
"Some people are more prone to unrequited love. If you are anxious (about relationships), emotionally needy and fall in love rather easily, then you're courting disappointment. Passion is great, but too much, too soon can push people away."

What brought on my interest in this neglected area of romance were the lyrics of the Harrow Sparrow, our very own warbling and tweeting Kate Nash. I kind of love her album, and I was struck by two tracks in particular, which articulate so well the highs and particularly the lows of unrequited love, or a giant crush. Listening to them made me remember all those times I've been in the throes of an agonising infatuation: the sweaty palms and the clumsy tongue and the excruciating blushes.

Nash has songs that go on forever, so I've plucked some choice lyrics

We Get on
Simply knowing you exist
Ain't good enough for me
But asking for your telephone number
Seems highly inappropriate

Seeing as I can't
Even say hi
When you walk by

[After a very funny and rambling narrative, Nash concludes on these prosaic and sweet words]

I don't ever dream
About you and me
I don't ever make up stuff about us
That would be classed as insanity
I don't ever drive by your house to see if you're in
I don't even have an opinion
On that tramp that you're still seeing
I don't know your timetable
I don't know your face off by heart
But I must admit
That there is still a part of me
That thinks we might get on
That we could get on
That we should get on

And then The Nicest Thing, wistful and full of longing,

I wish I was your favourite girl
I wish you thought I was the reason you are in the world
I wish my smile was your favourite kind of smile
I wish the way that I dressed was your favourite kind of style...

I wish you had a favourite beauty spot
That you loved secretly
'Cause it was on a hidden bit
That nobody else could see
Basically, I wish that you loved me
I wish that you needed me
I wish that you knew when I said two sugars,
Actually I meant three

There's just something about the way Nash blends the everyday mundane with sadness and longing that really got me. I'm not usually a fan of yearning and angsting and wishin' and hopin' but these songs have made me want to read some romances that deal effectively with the torments and obsessiveness of unrequited love.

In the past, I've shied away from this type of romance, possibly because pining heroines in the classics I was forced to read as a kid - books like Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Villette, The Professor (the entire works of Charlotte Bronte, let's face it) - left me angry and frustrated. Do something, damnit! Stop moping, ladies! Not to mention, the object of all this repressed longing was rarely worth the trouble.

Another practitioner is Mr Charles Dickens, who creates intensely passionate feelings in the hearts of his male protagonists. The foolish passion Pip felt for Estella (I never had one hour's happiness in her society, and yet my mind all round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death); the deep love John felt for Bella in Our Mutual Friend, which was ultimately returned; and Sydney Carton's love for Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities ("You have been the last dream of my soul..." ).


Which brings me to my next point: I think men are intrinsically more sympathetic as the victims of unrequited love. Where Elenaor and Fanny made me gnash my teeth, Mr Darcy, Rhett Butler and Gilbert (Anne of Green Gables) made me sigh and melt. Perhaps it's a female thing: the thought of powerful, handsome men pining away for a woman must appeal on a wish-fulfillment level.

One of the few sympathetic portrayals of female unrequited love is Cassandra's for Simon in I Capture the Castle, an absolutely fantastic book about being young and in love.

More recently, romances I've read with one half of the couple secretly in love with the other include The Smoke Thief, That Linda Howard Sarah's Child - and - and -!

Not much else, really.

Some recommendations, please! Anything that makes you sigh with fellow feeling as you recall in excruciating detail the follies of your youth will do.

I leave you with the immortal words of Charlie Brown -
"Nothing spoils the taste of peanut butter like unrequited love."

22 comments:

Laura Vivanco said...

I think men are intrinsically more sympathetic as the victims of unrequited love. Where Elenaor and Fanny made me gnash my teeth, Mr Darcy, Rhett Butler and Gilbert (Anne of Green Gables) made me sigh and melt. Perhaps it's a female thing: the thought of powerful, handsome men pining away for a woman must appeal on a wish-fulfillment level.

I have the impression that there are a lot of romance readers who give heroes more leeway in a lot of things, letting them get away with doing things that would make the same readers "gnash their teeth" if the heroine tried it.

I've always really admired Elinor's fortitude. I'll tend to feel sympathy for any character suffering from unrequited love, unless the object of their love is a silly, unsuitable person, in which case I'll feel sorry for them but also think they show poor judgement and I'll be hoping they fall in love with someone else soon. My level of sympathy is also dependent on how long the love has been unrequited and what they've done about it/what the circumstances are that prevent them either doing something about it or moving on emotionally. There can be valid reasons for not doing something and/or not moving on.

Meriam said...

I have the impression that there are a lot of romance readers who give heroes more leeway in a lot of things, letting them get away with doing things that would make the same readers "gnash their teeth" if the heroine tried it.


Is this entirely the fault of the reader? Whereas women in the throes of unrequited love are portrayed as almost physically wasting away (I remember Shirley, by C Bronte where Caroline pretty much lost her looks), men are enobled by it - see Sydney Carton and Mr Darcy. The difference is, women are passive and men are not. As a reader, that's a key distinction.

And that's what makes Cassandra, from I Capture the Castle, so unusal and charming. She is totally in love, but there isn't all that pining and hopelessness. She remains funny and self aware and ultimately upbeat.

I've always really admired Elinor's fortitude.

In the case of Elinor, I never thought Edward was worth it (or her). But I read Sense and Sensibility a really long time ago and my exasperation might have been coloured by my youth and impatience. (Did you catch the Andrew Davies adaptation? I didn't think there was need for *another* S&S, but I thought it was pretty decent nonetheless. It really captured the thrill of being in love, especially from Marianne's point of view. That scene where he's cutting a lock of her hair? I was almost breathless.)

Thinking about this last night, I wondered if I wouldn't find most examples of unrequited love (that is eventually requited) in categories? Apologies for the generalisation, but aren't there secretaries and housekeepers that secretly pine for their handsome bosses etc? Are there any gender reversals - heroes pining secretly for the heroine?

Any recommendations of when it is done well?

When I was researching this topic, I was amazed at the number of sites dedicated to unrequited love. Lots of help pages and support groups and even some humourous, tongue-in-cheek sites to cope with the agony. I'll have to dig them out and produce links.

Sherry Thomas said...

I love the graphs. Where did the first one come from?

And I think your feelings on the difference b/t male pining and female pining very much reflect mine. For me, it's not that they are men or women, but it's what they do with it. Do they perform well in other areas of their lives? Do they at least make a go at having that love returned?

Can't stand wasting away, be it men or women.

Meriam said...

The cartoons are great, aren't they? I found the first one (On the hoped-for diminution of the pain of unrequited love over time)on this site.

Here's the cartoon again.

There's one site called Unrequited Love: Agony and Rapture that is absolutely hilarious. I recommend the fantasies and daydreams section if you have a half hour to laugh/ sob.

Can't stand wasting away, be it men or women.

Yes, it's the waste that annoys me, too. 19th century writers were really keen on heaping misery after misery on their characters, literally sucking the life out of some of them. What I'm looking for in this romance hunt that I'm on, is a book with a female protagonist suffering from the 'agony and rapture' but being totally cool and self-aware about it, and trying to move on BUT somehow the object of her affection ends up reciprocating. HEA for all. But no chick lit! Chick lit has loads of unrequited love, but it's always for Mr Wrong.

By the way, your book is nowhere to be found on amazon.co.uk! Is the UK release at a much later date? (she asked, impatiently).

Jace said...

Love the hand-drawn pieces. :)

As a matter of fact, I've just finished reading about unrequited love - Shana Abe's The Secret Swan.

Prior to that - Linnea Sinclair's Games of Command.

I'll go and think of more. :)

Laura Vivanco said...

The difference is, women are passive and men are not. As a reader, that's a key distinction.

Well, the historical period in which the novel's set may make a difference. Anne Elliot in Persuasion expresses that difference in her thoughts about unrequited/hopeless love:

"Your feelings may be the strongest," replied Anne, "but the same spirit of analogy will authorise me to assert that ours are the most tender. Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments. Nay, it would be too hard upon you, if it were otherwise. You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with. You are always labouring and toiling, exposed to every risk and hardship. Your home, country, friends, all quitted. Neither time, nor health, nor life, to be called your own. It would be too hard, indeed" (with a faltering voice), "if woman's feelings were to be added to all this."

and "All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone!" (from Chapter 23).

I don't think of Anne as weak, but she's definitely been in love with Captain Wentworth for years, with not a lot of hope of happiness.

"Did you catch the Andrew Davies adaptation?"

No, I didn't.

Apologies for the generalisation, but aren't there secretaries and housekeepers that secretly pine for their handsome bosses etc? Are there any gender reversals - heroes pining secretly for the heroine?

They're not springing to mind in great numbers, possibly because I'm not so likely to have remembered this particular aspect of the plots if it's only mentioned in passing at the beginning. The thing is that in most romances, at some point one or both of the characters will think they're unrequitedly in love, so I'd only remember it as a plot point if it was something that was dwelt on at length by the author.

The only M&B heroine suffering from unrequited love for a long time that I can remember at the moment is the heroine of Elizabeth Bailey's Friday Dreaming.

I can think of one M&B hero who suffers unrequited love for years, in Candace Camp's Secrets of the Heart.

Moving on to single titles, there's Madeline Hunter's The Romantic, in which the hero's the one suffering, as is evident in the excerpt.

Um, and as usual, I'm not making any recommendations. I have no idea whether you'd like them or not. The hero in the Candace Camp isn't ennobled by his love. He gets on with his life but is pretty miserable most of the time.

Meriam said...

I liked Persuasion! But I take your point.

And I like the Hunter excerpt you linked to. I read a few of the books in that series but found them unremarkable: this one looks pleasingly different. In fact, all your non-suggestions sound pretty good (I found Friday Dreaming for £1 on Amazon..)

Jace I've got The Secret Swan in my tbr pile. After reading your glowing review, I've bumped it up. I read somewhere that Shana Abe does good unrequited love.

Sherry Thomas said...

Hmmm,

I did find PA
listed
, but amazon uk says it's unavailable.

It does list as an e-book on Random House's site. So perhaps after when it releases (25.03), you can get it from an e-book outlet, though I don't see it on Fictionwise.

Sigh.

Tumperkin said...

I love Capture The Castle and I think it totally proves your theory. Unrequited love need not be pathetic.

My recollection of my mother's VAST 1970s Mills and Boon collection is that there was lots of teenage heroines who nourished unrequited love (in their bosoms) for people like stepbrothers (ewwww).

I'll have to have a think about other examples

Meriam said...

Sherry - your cover is so lovely, I must own a hard copy. I'll keep an eye on Amazon. The UK one is always a little behind. It's just frustrating that a lot of the 'it' books lag behind.

Tumperkin - thanks. I look forward to you recs.

lots of teenage heroines who nourished unrequited love (in their bosoms) for people like stepbrothers (ewwww).

I've never found this scenario particularly skeevy under certain circumstances, like they become step brother/ sister in their teens or later. However, I've never had a step bother or sister, and maybe for people who have the notion is deeply unpalatable?

Tumperkin said...

The worst ones are the ones where the step-brother is not only step-brother but also acts in a fatherly way - double ewww.

I think my favourite ever 'unrequited love' book is Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. Ok - it's not pure 100% unrequited love. Kitty does love Nan - but not enough. There's a fantastic bit near the end, when Nan sees Kitty for the last time. She chooses her new sweetheart Flo over Kitty but -

"One part of me reached out to her at once, leapt to her like a pin to a magnet; I believe the very same part of me would leap to her again - would go on leaping to her, if she went on asking me, for ever"

imogen howson said...

I Capture the Castle is a fabulous example.
The only other I can think of is Claire in The Time Traveller's Wife. She's not technically unrequited, because Henry does love her, but they're separated by the main conceit of the book (that they live in different times and that for quite a period of her life she loves him but is too young for him to be willing to touch her). And she aches, and pines, but in a completely believable and sympathetic way.

Meriam said...

I think my favourite ever 'unrequited love' book is Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.

Well argued, Tumperkin! I forgot all about Tipping the Velvet. I'm so glad Nan stuck with Flo in the end. (SPOILER!)

Imogen, The Time Traveller's Wife is one of those books. The kind I know I should read (should have read already, in fact), but somehow haven't. I'll have to take it on holiday. Everyone I know loves that book.

Carolyn Jean said...

Great post. And that is such an interesting link you provided! Unrequited love is so wonderful and tormenting at the same time. It's nice to be reminded of it, especially being that I'm not currently experiencing it.

And about that survey - I suppose I'm a little surprised it's so universal, but at the same time, who are these 2% who never had it happen?

Meriam said...

who are these 2% who never had it happen?

I'm tempted to say they're either very lucky in love, or extremely self-obsessed. Who knows.

It is a large percentage. Maybe intense, unrequited crushes are a universal part of the growing up process (and beyond, but particularly during the teen years).

RfP said...

Meriam: I wondered if I wouldn't find most examples of unrequited love (that is eventually requited) in categories? Apologies for the generalisation, but aren't there secretaries and housekeepers that secretly pine for their handsome bosses etc? Are there any gender reversals - heroes pining secretly for the heroine?

Tump: My recollection of my mother's VAST 1970s Mills and Boon collection is that there was lots of teenage heroines who nourished unrequited love (in their bosoms) for people like stepbrothers (ewwww).

Tumperkin and I must have read the same categories, because my impression is that this must be among the most common Harlequin/M&B/Silhouette plots ever. (Maybe it's less in vogue now that most HPresents are "exotic", so the couple are less likely to have a long history?)

The unrequited one was often the stepsister, secretary, ugly duckling, or girl next door. But often it turned out in the end that HE'd suffered unrequited-or-so-he-thought pangs for her since an inappropriate age, or at inappropriate times around the office, or had seen the promise of beauty in the ugly duckling and felt like a pervert, or was stunned by her beauty as an adult, or thought she was a hoor but still longed for her and felt like a pervert, or... it's kind of disturbing how long this list could get.

I remember one US-set category romance in which stepsis was a newscaster. Every night stepbro invited a woman into his hot-tub, turned on the TV, and had sex while watching stepsis deliver the news. How's that for unrequited eww?

As a kid I liked the unrequitedness in L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light, because Vicky was young and whether or not Adam was interested in her, he was being a nice guy by keeping his hands off her.

Meriam said...

I remember one US-set category romance in which stepsis was a newscaster. Every night stepbro invited a woman into his hot-tub, turned on the TV, and had sex while watching stepsis deliver the news.

Unrequited EWW indeed! Yikes. Is it terrible that I want to read this perverted nonsense?

As for L'Engle, I've never read her: thanks for the rec.

RfP said...

Is it terrible that I want to read this perverted nonsense?

As I recall, their first sex scene (naturally her first EVER) got past the point of no return, then was interruptus by their parentus. Whoever the author was, she kept all the potential eww of the step-relationship front-and-center.

Though it lacked the "Little sister makes me hot so she must be a whore--and she doesn't realize how I feel so she's a bitch" of a British-set category I remember from the same period. I can almost remember the heroine's name....

Meriam said...

Don't stop there! Do continue!

RfP said...

Her name *might* have been Julia.

Oh wait, that's not the kind of detail you wanted? :)

I mix up several British Harlequins from the same period (possibly even the same one or two authors). One featured a widow and her "industrialist" brother-in-law. Was that the one in which she's, er, riding the pink pony and her... stepson?... walks in--and she's all the more embarrassed for being caught in a dominant position? I don't *think* that scene's in the aforementioned saga of the whore-bitch-stepsister complex.

And then there's the ever-popular embittered son of gardener/housekeeper/chauffeur who makes his millions and comes back to taunt the daughter of the house into his bed. His life. His heart. Wah!

Meriam said...

And then there's the ever-popular embittered son of gardener/housekeeper/chauffeur who makes his millions and comes back to taunt the daughter of the house into his bed. His life. His heart. Wah!

Honk.

One featured a widow and her "industrialist" brother-in-law. Was that the one in which she's, er, riding the pink pony and her... stepson?... walks in--

So, is this a British thing? I'm a little freaked out.

RfP said...

Heh. Were you hoping for less, ah, familial tales of unrequited love?

I mentioned where the books were set to narrow down the publisher and authors. Not as a hypothesis of some national kink. I doubt the Brits are the only ones to find that "incest is best". Although... :P

Speaking of older category romances, someone must have donated a lifetime collection to my local library--tonight I saw some old Loveswepts, Silhouettes, and late '80s/early '90s Hqn Presents.