Romance: not just a love story

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Donald Hair

When in 1842 Elizabeth Barrett published a series of periodical “notices” that were her history of English poetry – a history that has been mostly ignored by her critics – the plot she chose to order her materials was romance.

Hayden White has argued that the historian gives his or her narrative meaning through the structure of the story – it could be tragedy, for instance, a “decline and fall” plot – but EBB chose romance, and romance has been central to my understanding of literature ever since my days in graduate school.
In his dictionary, Dr. Johnson defined romance as “a tale of wild adventures in war and love,” and “wild adventures … in love” is the popular understanding of the term, as any walk around the labelled sections of a bookstore will confirm. But Sir Walter Scott provided a better and fuller understanding of the term in the supplement to the fifth (1824) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and his “Essay on Romance,” which I first read many years ago, has been central to my thinking about literature.

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Romance was central to the thinking of Thomas Carlyle also. I first read Sartor Resartus when I was an undergraduate, and later I read “The Diamond Necklace.” It is a kind of trial run for Carlyle’s monumental history of the French Revolution, and in it he champions the idea of romance as the essential shape of history, and even as the essential shape of contemporary life. “The Age of Romance is not dead,” Carlyle asserted, but all the busyness and ordinaryness of daily life obscure that fact: “No Age ever seemed an Age of Romance to itself.” Carlyle’s aim – and the aim of some of his contemporaries, such as Dickens – was to understand their own times by seeing “the romance of real life.”



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When I was in graduate school at the University of Toronto, the book which I absorbed was Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, and I took Frye’s graduate seminar, which he introduced to us as the practical application of the critical principles in that recent book of his. There is a section on romance, later expanded by Frye into The Secular Scripture, another of my favourite books, and romance became as central to my understanding of literature as it was to Frye himself. (When the editors of Frye’s collected works were gathering together his scattered pieces, they devoted a whole volume to Frye’s “Notebooks on Romance.”) The sight poem that  Frye chose for our final examination was Robert Graves’ “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” which begins with the lines “There is one story and one story only / That will prove worth your telling …,” and it is the story to which “all lines or lesser gauds belong.”

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My favourite Canadian novel is a romance. It is also the first in English to be written by someone who had been born and grew up in this country: John Richardson’s Wacousta. Richardson spent his childhood on the Amherstburg-Detroit frontier and had an Ottawa grandmother who told him tales of the Indian uprising of 1763; and Richardson served in the military during the War of 1812. He could have written a factual and realistic account of both 1763 and 1812-4, but when he did write about those events, he chose not history but romance – because, as he well knew,  romance was true, not so much to actual historical events, but primarily to the way people thought and felt about them. For romance is the outward projection of our inner lives – it is both a wish-fulfilment dream and a nightmare – and its claim to truth is not the realist’s but the psychologist’s. It is the imaginative power of all literature.

So it is not surprising that, when I was approaching Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s history of English poetry, I saw immediately that her “notices” on The Book of Poets were a romance. And maybe the way I have written about those “notices” will revive an interest in the “one story … worth … telling.”

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Donald S. Hair is professor emeritus in the Department of English and Writing Studies at the University of Western Ontario. His most recent book is Fresh Strange Music (McGill-Queens University Press, 2015).

The image featured at the beginning of this post is a nineteenth century cover design for Wacousta.