Sunday, January 8, 2012

Getting to Know You

While doing my daily round of the internet last week, I noticed that, over at Dear Author, Jane's #5 wish in her List of Things She'd Like to See in 2012 from the Romance Genre was More Courtship.

"I am not sure whether it is paranormals and the fated mates that have led to the slow devolution of the courtship, but whatever is the reason, we need to put a stop to it," Jane writes. "I love the courtship. Dating is so rife with opportunity and conflict. Where is the slow build of attraction?"

Now, don't get me wrong, I believe in the concept of instant attraction and people who simply belong with each other, but watching while two people start to become more aware of each other is wonderful, too, and Jane's post got me thinking how much I love those films and novels in which the main characters actually go out on dates, get to know one another, prolong the suspense for us. Will they or won't they? The almost-kiss can be as sexy to me (sometimes sexier) than sex itself.

Case in point: Scarecrow and Mrs. King. If you were born in the 80s or later, you most likely won't have a clue what this is, but for a romance-loving teen like me in 1983, it was The Best Thing on TV, my favourite show.

Bruce Boxleitner played a suave CIA spy, teamed with Kate Jackson as a divorced mom of two who got drafted by circumstance into the spy game. Their chemistry steamed up our little TV screen, and watching their feelings develop and grow brought me back every week thinking, "This is it! This is the week that they'll kiss!" Their interrupted almost-kisses were the thing of legend, but their first Real Kiss, right at the end of the Third Season (!) made my heart happy because I had watched all the small little moments that led to it.

Back in the mid-18th century, the Irish writer Laurence Sterne (of Tristam Shandy fame) wrote that "Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood."

Those "quiet attentions" are why I so love books like My Love, My Enemy, by Jan Cox Speas, with its pairing of the young American heroine, Page Bradley, and the dashing English spy Lord Hazard, set against the War of 1812, when a brave but rash action by Page throws them (literally) both in the same boat (well, ship) and Lord Hazard decides that, with Page on her own, he is honour-bound to guard her honour, however attractive he finds her. Which means that they don't even kiss till the end of the 14th long chapter, by which time we've watched while they break down their differences, overcome prejudices, notice each other's small faults and discover the things they admire in each other.

Again, it's those stray little moments: the times that their eyes meet, the times they say small things that mean something more, the few times they touch.

It's those same moments, I think, that mark the progression of real-life relationships, too: that first meeting, or first introduction; the first time you notice what colour his eyes are; the first time you go out together; the first time you hold hands; the first time you sit up until 2 a.m. talking; the times that you wish he would kiss you; the first time he actually does...

It's not all smooth sailing, mind you. Both in real life and in fiction there is angst, and plenty of it, and it's not a state I'd want to spend forever in. It's too exhausting. But whether it takes a full year, as it does with Lord Hazard and Page, or three seasons on TV, or one unforgettable day spent with Gregory Peck (Roman Holiday, pictured above), I'll admit I'm a sucker for stories of courtship.

What about you? What's your favourite example of courtship in fiction, and do you agree with Jane that we need more of it?

(Come back on Thursday, to see whether Julie comes out of her luxury bolthole...)


  1. As a fellow SCARECROW & MRS. KING fan I applaud this post! Yes, I'd definitely love to see more slow, subtle, tantalizing development of romance in fiction. And when I think of that kind of courtship, I keep going back to Lord Peter and Harriet Vane from Dorothy Sayers' books -- he knows from the beginning that he wants to marry her, but she's been hurt and she's extremely cautious, so he has to win her over slowly over the course of three books, and often by means that one might not think conventionally romantic at all. But when the sparks start to fly, wow.

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  2. I often prefer the slow build-up of attraction too. I like books where the attraction isn't instant, and it grows on the heroine and the reader at the same time. One example I can think of right now is Marian Keyes's This Charming Man, when the woman thinks that the romantic lead is a woman for a big chunk of the book. (Though that's not strictly a courtship novel.) I also love Heyer's The Grand Sophy, where the romantic relationship grows so subtly that you hardly notice it in the first reading until suddenly you know that it's perfect.

    The problem is that as an author, it can be difficult to sustain tension if the relationship is built slowly—particularly in a romance novel where the point of the novel is the relationship. You have to tread carefully between slow build-up and keeping up pace, and focusing on the romance and yet keeping the characters apart. A series of dates where everything is going swimmingly makes a nice life, but a dull book.

    So it's interesting that one of the examples you mention isn't primarily a romance. TV series where the plotlines focus on non-romantic issues work really well in building romantic tension, because you have another plot to carry the pacing forward, and can afford to draw out the relationship. Moonlighting, or the X-Files.

  3. It's interesting that courtship seems to have gone out of fashion to some extent in life and in books, yet that 'Will they, won't they?' element is still such a feature of so many TV shows. I recall another 80's series, Cover up, which, if I am remembering correctly, had a similar slow burn relationship. With all those series, the ostensible plot was what kept you watching on the night, but the romantic element was very strong in keeping you tuning in week after week, just in case this was the episode ...

  4. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. I’ve read GONE WITH THE WIND twice and viewed the film several times. A tempestuous romance set in turbulant times, with a courtship that bristles with passions of all kinds. Great stuff!

  5. I agree as well and for me the book that springs to mind is "Possession" by A.S. Byatt. There are two love stories developing slowly, but the one in the past is especially poignant as they exchange careful letters first before they even dare to meet, let alone touch. In the film of the same name, the moment when the couple in the past meet in a crowd and walk towards each other, seeing no one else, is just wonderful!

  6. Oh, yes, yes! Couldn't agree more! And especially agree with R.J, re Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.


  7. I loved Scarecrow and Mrs King! And Dempsey and Makepeace.
    Waiting for that first kiss was more than half the fun of those series.

    I think you need another plot to carry the story forward. When the romance is only secondary to the main story, it has room to breathe.

    Great blog. Thank you!(Off to find S&MrsK on you-tube)

  8. Sorry to be late coming back, I've been stuck in my book..

    Loving all these comments, by the way, and happy to see I'm not the only one who likes the slow and steady build up, sometimes.

    I agree that a second storyline can help keep things moving, though I'm not sure I agree that the romance then becomes secondary. I'd certainly call Roman Holiday a romance, and My Love, My Enemy, and both of those are definitely courtship stories. I think you can throw a number of twists and obstacles at the couple that slow the pace of their relationship without slowing the story as well... but that's just my opinion.

    And Rhoda, there are lots of SMK vids on YouTube. I confess, after watching a few, I broke down and bought the first two seasons on DVD. I plan to use them as my carrot for my current WIP: every time I finish a chapter, I get to watch an episode!

    So back to writing.. :-)

  9. Wow, I can't believe that I found a post like this. At the beginning of the year I asked myself,"where is the romance in relationships?" Anymore it seems writers don't want their characters to work for their love; their happy ending. The characters meet once or twice and all of the sudden they're in love and the guy is kissing the daylights out of the girl. NOT that I have a problem with the guy kissing the daylights out of the girl,but if they haven't gone through all the different emotions, if they haven't had some sort of restraint, held their passion in check while they got to know and fall in love with the other person than I don't think we get that same shiver of delight when they finally do kiss or declare their love for one another. It seems to cheapen the love story. Thanks so much for posting.

  10. I am new your blog, thanks to Laura Frantz for linking to it. I love your post! I agree that I would love to see more courtship in books. I have never read My Love, My Enemy, I am off to buy it for my Kindle. Thanks for the suggestion!

  11. Here too by referral from Laura Frantz. Great post. Now I need to go back through my current story and study it closer, examining if I've shown the courtship well. Thanks.

  12. By the way, very clever blog title, I love it!

  13. I love this post. Thank you so much.
    Courtship seems to be out of fashion, the only question is - why?
    Our society is full of singles (I even say a single-person dishwasher, and a single person washing mashine in the shop last week) and all we do is watching romantic movies and reading romantic books, acquiring pets to fight loneliness and dream day and night about some guy who would finally understand that this has been forced out of fashion. Maybe because of an accelerated life style in general or by modern dating means such as speed dating or the internet which all seem to not work.
    Real courtship is needed, as well as the return of writing real letters and wearing hats!

  14. I like this idea! There's nothing like a slow burn. I am glad to hear that someone else thinks so. (Lots of them, in fact!)
    And Roman Holiday is Simply The Best. Gregory Peck has yet to be one upped by Any Actor in film.