‘[T]he age of chivalry is on its way out.’ So opens a recent article published on the website of the Guardian newspaper. Of course, given that I am a romance novelist, this declaration piqued my interest.
The article (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jan/11/lovable-or-rogue-britons-admit-confusion-about-romantic-gestures) summarises the results of a recent survey carried out by long-standing British romance publisher Mills & Boon to mark the launch of The Mills & Boon Rules of Romance, a ‘guide to romance in the digital age’.
The Guardian reports: ‘Almost all (93%) of over-45s believed there was still a place for historically chivalrous acts in the 21st century, while 37% of 18-24-year-olds did not think so. Ordering for someone at a restaurant was particularly frowned on, while taking off a hat when entering a room, and standing at a table when your partner arrives and leaves were considered outdated.’
Perhaps chivalrous acts are too far out of step with feminism. But it strikes me that it is worth revisiting the definition of chivalry. From the Oxford English Dictionary:
Chivalry. Noun. Courteous behaviour, especially that of a man towards women.
Courteous. Adjective. Polite, respectful, or considerate in manner.
I wonder, why is it ‘outdated’ for a man to be polite, respectful or considerate in manner with women?
Mills & Boon also found that 76% of Brits would like more romance in their lives, and yet more than half (57%) do not make romantic gestures because they fear being seen as ‘cheesy’. That is a word I have seen applied to romance novels too many times to count. Back to the Oxford English Dictionary:
Cheesy. Adjective. Hackneyed and obviously sentimental.
Hackneyed. Adjective. (Of a phrase or idea) having been overused; unoriginal and trite.
Sentimental. Adjective. Having or arousing feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way.
‘Trite’, ‘self-indulgent’ – these are not words I like to see applied to romance. Why be afraid of being sentimental, of being tender with another and showing your heartfelt feelings? Why hold back from being romantic because you think to do so is unoriginal? We are surely put on this planet to love and be loved in return.
According to Mills & Boon, in this digital age ‘the definition of romance and what being romantic means is no longer clear’. More than half (59%) of those surveyed admitted they were bewildered by what it means to be ‘romantic’. Tellingly, a similar number of respondents (52%) reported that the medium through which they communicate with their partner most is digital: social media, text message and so on.
It strikes me that what is needed is a return to the very basics. We need to put the Romance back into romance! Grand gestures with flowers and chocolates aren’t essential; the very simplest of gestures can be the most powerful: eye contact, a gentle touch, a warm smile, active listening. It is no surprise to me that top of the poll for best-loved romantic gestures are hand-holding and cuddling; really, we all crave contact.
Is it challenging to be romantic in the modern era? Yes – if you complicate the notion of romance. But if you remember that romance is simply two people connecting with one another in a warm and positive way, then there need be no fear, no confusion, no demand to ‘modernise’ what is age-old and beautiful.
I will never write a book in which romance is conveyed by a heart emoticon in an electronic message; I will always write books in which romance is about a look, a touch, a courteous and thoughtful gesture.
British novelist Elinor Glyn wrote, ‘Romance is the glamour which turns the dust of everyday life into a golden haze.’ I agree: romance brings the world to life; makes it vibrant; makes it even more precious. But for me, romance is not a glamour, a temporary illusion: it is, if you so choose, a way of life.
Recently, I read with interest a personal essay entitled ‘You can never go back: on loving children’s books as an adult’ published on the LitHub website.
Writer Anya Jaremko-Greenwold laments that adults turn away from children’s literature in favour of reading books deemed good for them, when ‘the books we loved growing up had cosmic power – they chipped away at and gnawed upon and shaped our identities’. But we can’t go back, she argues: children’s stories can never be for us what they once were. Which is why she subtitles her essay: ‘Why visiting old fictional friends is so bittersweet’.
I identified with this essay, because I was such a keen reader as a child. As Sir Frances Bacon phrased it, I ‘devoured’ children’s books. They were a source of great comfort and joy to me – and inspiration. I am not sure I have ever found it bittersweet, though, to revisit those books in adulthood, because I have had no desire to go back: I move forwards, with my own writing, and that writing grows out of everything I have ever read and found inspiring in my life, including the stories of my childhood.
For me, the stories that most resonated were those rooted in legend: the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen; the One Thousand and One Nights; the mythology of ancient civilisations: the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks.
The latter was a key inspiration for my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears. It was a children’s book that first introduced me to Greek mythology. I remember it as well-thumbed, with a cracking spine, and falling open on certain stories I loved: Persephone and Hades, King Midas and the golden touch, Theseus and the Minotaur – although the Minotaur illustration would frighten me. My governess read this book over and over to me, as did my parents, and I lived the stories in my imagination.
The stories of Greek mythology stayed with me over the years, and when I had my own children, I was able to rediscover them all over again – and then, more recently, once more with my grandchildren. So it is that childhood stories can be treasured and revisited – and, importantly for my own writing, dwell in an imagination for so long that even years later they can spark creative ideas.
Aphrodite’s Tears is an adult novel, a romance – not fantasy, but true to life. However, it is interwoven with Greek mythology, and when I wrote the book I found my mind returning often to that old, worn compendium of my childhood. There is such warmth in my memories of reading that book, such magic and thrall, and Aphrodite’s Tears became imbued with those feelings.
Emilie Buchwald said, ‘Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.’ Writers are made this way too, and I am so very glad for all the books I read, and was read, in my formative years.
If you are interested in Greek mythology, I highly recommend Robert Sabuda’s pop-up Encyclopedia Mythologica. The artwork is beautiful and brings to life the stories:
It’s ideal for reading aloud to children, because it’s a book both adult and child can enjoy. In fact, you may find you love it so much, it’s a book you want on your own shelf. Because, in fact, while you can’t go back to childhood, you can always remain young at heart and appreciate the stories that shape imaginations.
In our modern world it seems to me that there is a great and powerful need to hurry. If you have a dream, there is no time to waste, we are told: go out there right now and seize hold of your dream! But this is not the only path to a dream; and neither, perhaps, is it the best one.
As a young woman, I burned with the desire to write. I was ready in so many ways: I had made the choice, in my early teens, that I would be a novelist; I had read and read to learn the craft, and attended university to hone the craft; and there were novels inside me, clamouring to be written.
However, I knew that my time had not yet come. I didn’t try to publish novels: I travelled, I got married, I had children and I ran my own business. Writing was a dream that I treasured in these years, something to look towards on the horizon. I ‘filled my papers with the breaking of my heart’ (Wordsworth), but they were notes jotted down in notebooks, not manuscripts. I knew that there was no time limitation on art; no actual pressure, beyond that which may be exerted internally, to act quickly on aspirations.
Have you heard the expression ‘late bloomer’? It is one which, I confess, I do not much like. Usually, it is used to refer to a child whose capabilities or talents are slower to emerge than others’. But in the creative world, it is also used to describe someone who hits their creative stride later in life.
A prime example is the English novelist Mary Wesley. Mary was a very successful writer, selling three million books. However, she didn’t publish her first novel until she was 70 years of age. (She had, in fact, published three children’s books before this, in her fifties, but they had made her no money.) The Telegraph calls the story of her literary career ‘one of the most uplifting in recent literary history’.
Other notable late bloomers in the literary world published their first novels in their fifties and sixties; for example, Laura Ingalls Wilder with Little House on the Prairie; Frank McCourt with Angela’s Ashes, Kenneth Grahame with The Wind in the Willows and Richard Adams with Watership Down. But in fact, in some circles you can be considered a late bloomer if you first publish as early as your forties, outside the scope of the New Yorker’s annual ‘20 under 40’ list of writers to watch.
You could be forgiven for thinking, based on the media, that new authors in their twenties and thirties are the only ones to watch. Of course we are reminded often that JK Rowling was in her early thirties when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. But according to writer Kazuo Ishiguro, as quoted in the Telegraph, even writers in their thirties are not budding, but peaking.
I disagree. Age does not matter; talent matters – and passion and commitment and, above all else, experience. It is life experience that moulds a writer, and so one must live life in order to write about life. I also believe that patience is a virtue, and that waiting to write, and longing to write, my own novels has made me a far better writer and better equipped to manage all that the modern world of publishing requires.
I am left questioning: For what exactly is a late bloomer late? Absolutely nothing, is the answer. It is never too late to do what you have dreamed of doing; but equally, it is never imperative that you pursue a dream before you are ready.
One of my hobbies is reading dictionaries; not cover to cover, because that would take an age, but dipping in and out. I love to learn about languages – both French and English, because I am bilingual. I especially love etymology, which is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.
I have several dictionaries on my desk (pictured) which are well-thumbed. I never throw out a dictionary, even when it is old and fraying; they are the most soulful of books, I think, veritable treasure troves of learning. Along with general dictionaries, I have those for bilingual translation, synonyms (thesauri) and rhyming – not because I am a poet, but because I love the rhythm of rhyme.
Today, for fun, I am sharing ten things I have learned about dictionaries, some of which may just surprise you.
1. Dictionaries in various forms have existed right back to the earliest writings, but they were not so-called. Englishman John of Garland – graduate of the Universities of Oxford and Paris and master at the University of Toulouse – first coined the term ‘dictionary’ in 1220. He called the book he had written to help readers of Latin the Dictionarius.
2. The first single-language English dictionary was published in 1604 by a teacher named Robert Cawdrey and entitled Table Alphabeticall. At the time, advances in literature, science, medicine and the arts were creating all kinds of new words, and Cawdrey endeavoured to capture these and bring some order to the English language. The book had no words beginning with J, K, U, W, X or Y. A copy of this book is held to this day by the Bodleian Library, Oxford (a wonderful place to visit, I may add, if you ever have the chance).
3. Samuel Johnson laid the foundations for modern dictionaries. In 1755 he published the first really reliable modern (for its time) dictionary, A Dictionary of the English Language. It was so good that it was the standard dictionary for more than a century (until Oxford University began on their great work – see below). Samuel’s entries were sometimes colourful; ‘excise’, for example, was defined as ‘a hateful tax collected by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid’, and ‘dull’ was defined as ‘not exhilarating, not delightful: as, “to make dictionaries is dull work”’.
4. The Oxford English Dictionary – in print to this day, and right here on my desk – was first published in 1928 in no less than 12 volumes, after 50 years’ work. Today, the dictionary is still widely regarded as the go-to source, with quarterly updates of new words (published at http://public.oed.com/whats-new/). Interestingly, though, back when it was first compiled, one of its main contributors was a man named William Chester Minor from his room in a mental asylum, in which he had been incarcerated for murder. To this day, people are invited to contribute to the dictionary: http://public.oed.com/the-oed-appeals/about-the-oed-appeals/.
5. Noah Webster spent 27 years researching and compiling his American Dictionary of the English Language, and to do so he learned some 26 languages. The final published work contained 12,000 words never before contained in a dictionary!
6. Dictionaries began as prescriptive: the compiler laid down hard-and-fast rules. For example, Noah Webster decided that color should be the American spelling for the British English colour, and center the spelling for centre. These days, dictionaries are more descriptive, exploring usage rather than decreeing it. Basically, those who compile dictionaries don’t necessarily approve of words, they simply report the words that people are using, and how.
7. Lexicography is the word used to describe the study of dictionaries. In fact, no one thought to study them until the 20th century. A man named Ladislav Zgusta, professor of linguistics and classics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was the first to write a guide to lexicography in 1955, and he is seen as the godfather of the field.
8. All dictionaries are out of date. As Samuel Johnson put it, “Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.” Because language is constantly evolving, no dictionary can keep perfect pace. Still, there is a lot that can be learned from any dictionary.
9. A dictionary is a wonderful tool for a writer, but it does not teach one to write. As Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “It is often forgotten that [dictionaries] are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature.”
10. The longest word in an English dictionary is Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. It was conceived in 1935 by the then-president of the American National Puzzlers’ League, as a deliberate attempt to create the longest word in the English language. It worked: the synonym for silicosis, which refers to a lung disease, found its way into major dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word thus: ‘an artificial long word said to mean a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust’. A word well worth learning to impress, if not overly useful in conversation, correspondence and, in my case, romantic fiction…
While reading an article in the Irish Independent on romance novels, a quotation from author Kate Kerrigan caught my eye:
‘The people who are reading romance are not like the people who are reading the Booker shortlist. They are voracious readers and they are getting through a volume of books.’
It’s commonly known that romance is the biggest genre, of course, with the most sales, but have you ever considered that the size of the readership is not simply down to the fact that a lot of readers read romance, but also because romance readers read a lot (if you follow my logic)?
How many romance books do you read each year, as opposed to books in other genres? How many books does a romance reader read as opposed to a reader with other tastes?
‘They are voracious readers and they are getting through a volume of books.’ What is it about romance that makes readers read and read in the genre? Do romance readers tear through books more quickly than other readers? Do they dedicate more hours to reading – and if so, why? Does Netflix-style ‘binge reading’ come into play (see this article in the Times Literary Supplement: ‘Netflix, heir to Dickens?’).
This would make for a very interesting research study, don’t you think?
It strikes me that no question of quantity can be asked without also considering quality. There are romance authors (and, indeed, publishers) who are aware of the power of quantity and who consequently churn out fiction. Often, these are books that have been written quickly. They may be short. They may be lacking in complexity and depth. They are offering quick ‘fixes’, as some readers term it, to a romance addiction.
I am signed to a wonderful publisher, London Wall, that supports my way of writing and publishing. I don’t churn out books; I don’t write quickly, with the aim of producing something that’s merely acceptable rather than the very best I can write. I tend to take a whole year to create a book, from idea and research through writing and editing. I labour over that book; I care about it deeply. I always endeavour to write something meaningful, which will transport my readers into the story world. I want to create books that are ‘keepers’, to remain on the shelf and be re-read someday. In short, quality is very important to me – more so than quantity.
When a romance reader chooses to read one of my novels, I know that it is just one of many books they will read this year. But I hope that with my book they won’t feel it’s a quick read, a story to race through before moving on to the next one. I hope that my book offers the reader a chance to slow down, breathe and relax, as they enjoy a journey to an exotic location infused with passion, beauty and truth.
A new ‘Hannah Fielding’ novel may be more of an annual, rather than quarterly, event, but it is one I look forward to immensely, knowing that the new novel is a work of which I am proud. In case you are wondering, a new book, entitled Aphrodite’s Tears, is in the pipeline, and I’m very happy with how it is looking. As soon as I have a publication date fixed, I will share the news on my blog.