Sunday, November 1, 2009

Reader, I hated him

You know you were a nerd as a kid when all your crushes were 19th century literary creations....

Under the covers with my first love
Susan Daly trembles at the knees as she delves into the Mills and Boon poll of the ultimate romantic literary heroes

Saturday October 24 2009

My first love was well over 150 years old and had "a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance" when I fell for him. No Eamon Dunphy jokes please -- I was a tender-hearted 13-year-old and this was serious.

Never mind that Mr Darcy had seduced generations of young girls before me. He had me at hello. Or rather, at the first mention of his "fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien" in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

If he had a bit of a puss on him, that was acceptable: at least he had some gravitas. When your real world is populated by teenage boys for whom seduction is twanging bra straps in class, a man with sophistication and the ability to grow impressive sideburns can turn a girl's head.

I take it quite personally that Mr Darcy (first name Fitzwilliam, but best not to dwell on that) has not topped a new list of the most romantic literary heroes as voted by Mills and Boon readers. That spot went to Mr Rochester, keeping wives in attics since 1847.

I understand that taking umbrage over which 19th century figment of the imagination fills his fictional breeches better is a bit like debating whether Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran was the finer band of the '80s. They were both a bit ridiculous, if we're honest.

Nonetheless, the first literary hero you take under the covers with you, reading by torch when your mother yells up the stairs to turn out the light, is special. Edward Rochester was not a man you would want to be alone with in a darkened room.

In Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, he was dismissive of his daughter, uncharitable towards his wife and menacing towards Jane. Reader, I despised him.

At one point, when Jane refuses to become his mistress (because that's what she would be, what with the first Mrs R still wearing a hole in the floor upstairs) he threatens that he may not be able to control his passion. "His voice was hoarse; his look that of a man who is just about to burst an insufferable bond and plunge headlong into wild licence," wrote the breathless Bronte. An implicit threat of rape -- hardly the stuff of fairytale romance, is it?

Mr Darcy was not without his faults but the whole attraction was that he repented and changed his ways through the love of a good woman. The words leopard and spots had yet to become linked in my very limited lexicon of love. Rochester, I seem to remember, needed to be blinded and crippled before he came to his senses.

Darcy is loyal and constant but misunderstood. As the book progresses, we are dropped little tidbits about his discreet kindnesses. We are made to fall in love with him much as Lizzie does. He ignores his family's protests that she is socially inferior, fulfilling our teenage fantasies that we are all Cinderellas just waiting for someone to see past the rags/acne/lack of status to the princess within.

In truth, I wonder how much of my crush on Mr Darcy would remain were the image of a wet-shirted Colin Firth not burned on my brain. Firth became the definitive Darcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995, emerging damp and magnificent from a lake into which he had dived to quench his unvoiced passion for Lizzie Bennett. He was everything I had imagined he would be -- and more. Purely for research purposes, I looked up the scene on YouTube this week and can confirm that it remains what might politely be termed, a knee-trembler.

I will also admit to being influenced by Robert Redford and Mia Farrow at their most ethereally beautiful in the film version of The Great Gatsby, which I saw just before I read the book.

Blinded by Jay and Daisy's physical perfection, I wanted their champagne lifestyle, debauched and doomed though it was.

Rochester, by contrast, is merely terrifying as played by William Hurt in 1996 or, bizarrely, almost too handsome and suave in the hands of Timothy Dalton in the 1980s miniseries.

On the other hand, Wuthering Heights has somehow seen Heathcliff and Cathy's doomed passion recast as epic romance in screen versions. It helps with the bosom-heaving that he has been portrayed by the very beautiful Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes. I have a suspicion that although we're all meant to be feminists now, the adolescent attraction to unsuitable bad boys lingers. Heathcliff -- so singularly demonic that he doesn't even have a last name -- is mad, bad and dangerous to know. Yet there is not one girl-child of the 1980s who has not looked wistfully out her bedroom window, practising her best Kate Bush wail: "Heathcliff, It's me, It's Cathy, I've come home ... "

As with most formative experiences, it's often a case of meeting the right romantic hero at the right time. Theodore 'Laurie' Laurence is a heart-throb as the wealthy, orphaned neighbour of the March sisters in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. But his appreciation of the qualities of bookish, headstrong tomboy Josephine was encouraging for those of us who spent teenhood hiding behind a book.

And sometimes there is just no accounting for taste. My biggest teenage crush, less literary than pulp fiction, was Kit Fielding, a jockey-slash-detective from the Dick Francis series of potboiler books. One scene in which he ravishes a lucky lady on some dustsheets in a renovated house and then heads off to ride seven winners at an evening race meet sticks in my mind, and I really wish it wouldn't.

I'm not alone. When I asked women of my acquaintance what literary heroes kept them turning the pages as teens, I got some interesting feedback. Heathcliff made it, of course, and Mr Darcy but also Adrian Mole, he of the secret diary and unrequited crushes, and Holden Caulfield of JD Salinger's Catcher in The Rye.

Another mentioned The Fat Controller, but I hope she was joking. A lust for Heathcliff might be so wrong it's right, but some passions are just, well, wrong.

Sometimes you only know you love a literary hero when you see them on screen. The following characters’ leap from book to script has only increased their attractiveness:

RHETT BUTLER – GONE WITH THE WIND: Margaret Mitchell’s novel was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1937 before it was given the Hollywood treatment two years later with Clark Gable as Rhett and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. The novel’s Rhett was violent and brutal with women, based as he was on Mitchell’s first husband, a bootlegger and abuser whom she divorced. In the movie, Rhett is somewhat more dashing with Gable and his moustache ensconced locked in a classic flirt-flight epic with Scarlett.

ROMEO MONTAGUE – ROMEO AND JULIET: I never understood the attraction of Romeo – all mouth, no trousers and kills himself unnecessarily. What use is that? Then Leonardo diCaprio’s delinquent Romeo swaggered into the picture in Baz Luhrmann’s inspired Romeo + Juliet in 1996 and it all became clear. Especially in the scene where he rips his shirt off in the rain.

ROB GORDON – HIGH FIDELITY: As in most of Nick Hornby’s books, the male protagonist needs nothing more than a good shake. Director Stephen Frears made Rob Gordon (Fleming in the book) infinitely more attractive and less pathetic by casting the indie woman’s crumpet John Cusack in the role in the 2000 film. Record store owner and compulsive list-maker Rob learns to lose his fear of commitment and makes the perfect romantic mix tape.

ROBBIE TURNER – ATONEMENT: If Ian McEwan’s masterpiece had been around in my teenage years, I would have seized on the budding sexual tension between the aristocratic Cecilia Tallis and the poor-but-proud Robbie as the ultimate coming-of-age tale. Joe Wright’s 2007 film puts flesh on Robbie’s bones by casting the delicious James McAvoy. Thwarted love, heroic death and a full-blooded knee-trembler in the library: what more could a girl want?

EDWARD CULLEN – TWILIGHT: Stephanie Meyers did something clever with her Twilight series of teen books: she made her romantic hero the ultimate bad boy – a vampire. But her best trick was to allow the books to be optioned. By the time the first Twilight film came out last year, you could hear the anticipatory teen girl screams in space. And Meyers quite rightly gave Robert Pattison the stamp of approval as the Edward she had pictured in her head, managing to look both “dangerous and beautiful” at the same time.

CYRANO DE BERGERAC - CYRANO DE BERGERAC: We will ignore Steve Martin in the American film version Roxanne and concentrate on Gerard Depardieu in 1990 as the big-nosed lover who overcomes his facial shortcomings with beautiful words. Depardieu makes him an utterly believable, vulnerable character and let’s face it, the actor is not a man who has ever let his sizeable schnoz stand in his way with the ladies.

ARAGORN – LORD OF THE RINGS: In the Tolkien cycle of books Aragorn is a noble warrior for sure, but the description of him with shaggy dark hair “flecked with gray” and a stern, pale face hardly leaps off the page at you. Enter the ruggedly handsome Viggo Mortensen in 2001 in the first of Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy and suddenly it becomes a little easier to picture him being adored by the masses of Middle Earth.

JAMES BOND – THE 007 SERIES: Ian Fleming wrote that his fictional British secret agent James Bond had a noticeable scar on his cheek, “a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold”. Doesn’t sound much like Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan, does it? He also abhors killing people which is quite a remove from the devil-may-care physicality of the screen Bonds who seduce and assassinate with equal vigour.
The ladies’ man bit is consistent with Fleming’s books – although the written Bond also has a habit of slapping his Bond girls about which is something the screen Bond would never get away with (Sean Connery off-screen comments notwithstanding).

RICHARD SHARPE – SHARPE: A fictional British soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, Richard Sharpe is a man with a dark, possibly murderous past, in Bernard Cromwell’s series of books. He is also dark, long-haired and scarred. In the 1990s TV series, Sean Bean – blonde, beautiful, not at all scarred – romanticized the role. A fine, er, swordsman he was but his three marriages ended poetically badly: two wives die and the third betrays and steals from him. There, there Sharpe, let us comfort you on our heaving bosoms.

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