Recently, I have been watching The Tudors (Michael Hirst), because the period of history fascinates me. There’s plenty of focus on romantic relationships in the series, from Henry VIII and his wives and mistresses through to other members of the court. What has fascinated me has been the portrayal of such relationships in the time, and it has struck me time and again how hindered romance was. In so many ways, men and especially women were not free to love in the way we dream of today; so many rules and expectations existed that stymied freedom.
Take, for example, Anne Boleyn. She is portrayed in the series as having used her feminine wiles cleverly to catch herself a king – and yet we also have the sense that as well as seeking power and fortune and securing a place in history for herself and her children, she loves Henry. She is simply a woman who loves a man. But from early on in their marriage, when she is unable to bear a male heir and politics cause Henry to pull away from her, Anne is utterly powerless to defend her marriage. She must bite her tongue while Henry takes lovers; she must bite her tongue when she has an opinion. Far from being the sassy, flirty, pushy girl with whom Henry fell in love, she is expected to become her predecessor – the obedient, loyal, reserved and dutiful Catherine of Aragon. Anne is trapped; her wings are clipped. And of course now Henry finds his attraction to her diminishing, and we all know the horrendous end result of the relationship, the final termination of Anne’s freedom.
Look back at all the great love stories in history, and you see that the central struggle in the story is one of freedom. Think of Romeo and Juliet, for example, plunged into attraction but held back by their families’ warring history. Theirs is the model for a great many love stories that echo through world cultures: two who love, but are not free to love. And even in today’s romance novel, one could argue that the story arc centres on finding release – on identifying that which hinders true love, and then doing battle with it so that both lovers can emerge free to be together without limitations.
Certainly, in my own novels I can see the theme of freedom that underlies the development of the love story. In Burning Embers, for example, what holds Coral back is societal pressure – rather than follow her own heart, she struggles against the influence of those who gossip and lie and would see her give up on Rafe. And as for Rafe, he had long accepted that he does not have the right – the freedom – to love; he is lost in guilt and self-punishment. Only by letting go of these chains that bind them can the two lovers take hold of freedom and, in doing so, commit to each other.
Therein lies the difference, the evolution of love. In the stories of love from time gone by, the struggle for freedom was often with external forces that conspired to keep two lovers apart. Now, given the revolutions of the past fifty years, we are freer to love than ever before, and the struggle has moved within. Think of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary when it was first released – how it brought to the public consciousness an understand of how woman were agonising over love: over their attractiveness, their worthiness, their right to choose. Now our own fears can be our gaolers. Now to love we must create our own inner freedom to do so – battle our own inner dragons; have the courage to believe we are worthy to be with that special person.
It would be too easy to hope that in the evolution of relationships we will reach a place where there is simply freedom – after all, that would be the logical progression. But that is not human nature. To appreciate love, to hold fast to it, I think we will always need an element of struggle. We must fight for the freedom to love, because in doing so, we grow, we learn, we experience… and we fall all the more in love.