I had a tough childhood. My mother was a book fanatic, and further to this she was also a language teacher, with a special fondness for the development of literature throughout the ages. Incorrect grammar was not allowed, and let me tell you I had Sophocles and Aeschylus down pat long before I’d figured out how to use a blow-dryer – although to be honest I have still not mastered the use of that particular implement (What’s wrong with a towel?).
In retrospect, I was extremely fortunate. My mother allowed me full access to her library, whether it was Henry Miller or Marguerite Duras, and would at most utter a mild ‘mmm?’ when I tried to shock her by plonking down Emmanuelle on the table beside her. As a teenager, I found this terribly frustrating, so I kept on throwing down provocative books – from Nabokov to Anaïs Nin to Erica Jong – to no avail. She just smiled and nodded. My mother believed in broadening the mind – but she also made sure I was given a thorough grounding in the various literary genres and periods, going out of her way to give me context for some of Baudelaire’s grimmer poems, or for Huxley’s A Brave New World.
As my wayward teens progressed – although, apart from my reading matter I must admit to having been a disturbingly well-behaved teen – I came to the somewhat reluctant conclusion that I was more of a romantic than a goth, a “happily ever after” person rather than a friend of dystopian disaster. My mother was not particularly surprised – she kept a pretty good tab on what I was reading – but rolled her eyes a bit, exasperated and amused in equal parts. My mother has a somewhat less pink take on life than I do. Besides, she comes from a generation that appreciates the grittiness of auto-didactic novelists, of stark descriptions of the tough conditions of working man or of social injustice in general (think Sillitoe or Wright). But while I dutifully read all these neo-realist tales of woe without hope, my favourite literary period was that of the Romanticism, and to this day I cannot walk by a blue flower without thinking of Goethe’s classic, The sorrows of Young Werther.
Blue flower? Ha, I can see you wrinkle your brows. Shouldn’t the symbol of Romanticism be a red, red rose? Well, Burns might agree with you there, but nope, it’s blue, people. In Swedish, we call it “längtans blå blomma” (the blue flower of longing) , but is actually a German poem, called Die Blaue Bluhme which was considered to represent the essence of Romanticism, a period where focus was on feelings rather than on facts, on yearning rather than getting. Awww…
Okay, so Romanticism is not the same as Romantic – as demonstrated by that extra, rather irritating syllable. Big disappointment that was, once I figured that one out! Not enough swooning damsels and stalwart knights, if you get my drift – or rather not only swooning women and heroic men.
Romanticism was very much about exploring emotions such as apprehension and horror (Edgar Allan Poe belongs in the Romanticism) and it embraced the exotic and unknown – even the supernatural and occult (Shelley and her Frankenstein, f.ex). It was about passion and dramatic excess, in German labelled Sturm und Drang (Tempests and Turmoil, as per my translation) Works of the preceding area, such as Macpherson’ Ossian and Walpole’s early dabbling with the Gothic influenced the period markedly, and as the period sparked a major interest for the past – especially for anything remotely medieval – Walter Scott took it upon himself to do humanity a major favour by inventing the historical novel. No wonder I love this period!
But what about the romantic element, you may wonder. Ah yes… After all, the reason I got stuck in this period was not so much because I wanted to read about cats being walled up by mistake with murdered people, or because I enjoyed reading about Frankenstein. No, I wanted to feel a frisson of delight flow up my spine – as when Mr Darcy AT LAST understands Elizabeth is the woman for him. Or press the book to my chest and laugh through my tears when Jane Eyre finally returned to Mr Rochester. Or become so engrossed in Hester Prynne’s sad destiny that I read throughout the night. (My mother was a big fan of Nathaniel Hawthorne – although she’d say it was more due to how he wrote. Huh! After all, The Scarlet Letter is, in my opinion, a truly romantic novel, despite there being no happily ever after ending – at least not for the lovers in question)
I wanted to be transported beyond the hum-drum of everyday life, to sway under the onslaught of feeling – so much feeling. And I did. With Edmond Dantes I escaped from the Isle of If, I ran behind Catherine as she charged across the moor, crying for her Heathcliff. I gasped my way through The Bride of Lammermuir, (major weeping-fest, let me tell you) and spent hours pretending to be Esmeralda, the raven-haired gypsy beauty that so beguiles in Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-dame.
Today, I still lean towards the Sturm und Drang. I like my reading matter to carry me off, to leave me with wads of drenched tissues in my hands. Now and then I need to take a break from all this emotional upheaval, which is when I resort to reading non-fiction, mainly history. Bad idea, as it turns out – because sometimes the actual facts are as dramatic and as tragic as fiction. Ask the Earl of Bothwell. Or Mary, Queen of Scots. Or Joan of Arc. Or Harold Godwinson. Sheesh… I think I’ll stick with make-believe!
Writing this little post has stirred a burst of inspiration – the shady contour of a 14th century man and his woman are presently dominating my mind, the scene a most tempestuous reunion against the dramatic backdrop of an on-going rebellion. There is moonlight, there are tears, there is laughter and voices lowered into whispers. And as he kneels before her he holds out his hand, offering her a a sprig of forget-me-not’s. A most romantic gesture, don’t you think? She, the shady lady in my head, definitely seems to think so – at least to judge from just how tenderly she cups his head, before placing the softest of kisses on his lips. Right; I’m off. Must write. Now!