Kissing Cousins: Lady Mary Crawley embraces Matthew Crawley at the conclusion of the immensely popular television series Downton Abbey's Christmas Special. But, while millions still thrill to the fantasy of romantic love, does it continue to fulfil its original purpose of transforming men into beings fit for feminine company?
IT WAS ONE of those television moments when millions of viewers across the world exhaled a heartfelt sigh of satisfaction. There, in the portico of Downton Abbey, the two, star-crossed lovers: Lady Mary Crawley, and her father’s third cousin (once removed) Mr Matthew Crawley, finally plighted their troth. She standing, he on one knee, as the pure white snow-flakes swirled about them.
The immense audience for Julian Fellowes high-rating Downton Abbey is proof of the enduring power of romantic love. Whether it be the upstairs romance of Mary and Matthew; the downstairs romance of Anna and Mr Bates; or the combination of both in the romance between Lady Sybil and the Earl’s chauffer, the age-old tale of bliss attained through trial and peril continues to move us – even in the Twenty-First Century.
It is fitting then, on this day dedicated to romantic love, to interrogate the tradition. What does romance look like in the Twenty-First Century? Does it still possess the power to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary? To turn prose into poetry? And, most importantly, does romance still perform its original and most significant function: that of imbuing the relationship between the sexes with something more than lust and greed?
Venturing forth into the streets of our largest cities on a Friday or Saturday night one finds scant evidence that romantic love still has any devotees. The behaviour taking place in pubs and clubs at the end of the working week more closely resembles the bacchanalia of ancient Rome. These are unabashed festivals of the flesh, where intoxication fuels passion – and vice versa. Not so much a case of two souls intermingling, as two bodies – for versatile vice.
Is romance anywhere present among these drunken midnight games of musical beds?
In the case of far too many young (and not-so-young) men I fear the answer is ‘no’. After all, how many young men today have even the slightest acquaintance with the romantic tradition? I grew up on Malory’s medieval tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and Tennyson’s rendition of them into romantic Victorian verse:
He rode between the barley sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A redcross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield.
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.
The callow swain of 2012, if he is acquainted with King Arthur at all, knows him not via Tennyson and Malory, but via the HBO television-series Camelot in which swords, sorcery and sex are intertwined in ways that would make Tennyson blush. Suffice to say that these ‘New Arthurians’ all evince decidedly Twenty-First Century morals, and viewer discretion is advised.
And what of today’s young woman? Has ‘Mr Right’ really been replaced by ‘Mr Right-Now’? When the sun’s come up, the last-man-standing has departed, and the hangover’s at full strength, is she still in need of a “redcross knight” – or just the Red Cross?
The man she’s waiting for is surely the same man that the whole idyll of courtly love, and the tradition of romantic courtship, was intended to create: a good man.
Romance is a conspiracy: a fascinating combination of sensuality and spirituality originally woven together by itinerant medieval troubadours and their aristocratic patronesses for the purposes of transforming the feudal brutes that were their husbands into someone they could talk to when the sex was over. From Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to Aretha Franklin; all women have ever wanted from men is a little “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”.
Romance is about changing men. About teaching them to listen to that part of themselves that rejects the never-ending battle of “all against all”; that ceaseless struggle for ‘honour’ and precedence to which masculinity, unmediated by feminine power, inevitably descends. The thwarted, stunted version of masculinity that spawns the horror of “honour killings” in those parts of the world where the traditions of feudal patriarchy still hold sway.
And surely, it was a world free of such murderous patriarchs that even the staunchly un-romantic feminists were seeking? Their argument was that by climbing down from the pedestal upon which chivalrous men had placed them, and mixing-it with their brothers as equals, the revolutionary social changes they were seeking would be hastened. Has the strategy worked? Which sex do you think has become more like the other? Male, or female?
Romance, chivalry, courtly love: these have always been revolutionary ideals. Their power to transform our ordinary, workaday world is undeniable – and overwhelming. Lust is transient and greed’s disfiguring, but romantic love can turn the humblest suburban doorstep into Downton’s stately portico; every man into a redcross knight; and every woman into a lady – at whose feet a changed man at last surrenders the power he no longer needs.
This essay was originally published in The Press on St Valentine’s Day (Tuesday, 14 February) 2012.