“One line from “My Brilliant Career” has always haunted me. At one point, Sybylla’s Aunt Gussie tells her, “Loneliness is a terrible price to pay for independence.” My teenage self thought that was an incredibly pithy observation, and I went right home to record it in my journal. When I hear it now, I think, “Huh?”
Where did this come from, this idea that in order to be complete, we women had to be alone? That by falling in love and making a commitment to another human being, we were somehow diminishing ourselves? That our choices were: A) Fall in love and be unhappy, or B) Remain alone and be happy. Why couldn’t we fall in love and be happy? Nope, sorry. Not one of the choices, according to the world where I grew up.
Thankfully, I think most of us saw through that message and fell in love anyway. I mean, it’s not like falling in love or not falling in love is a choice, right? We meet someone who loves and respects us as we are, someone who shares our hopes and dreams and desires, someone who makes our life better just by being in it, and what? We’re supposed to NOT love them? Especially when loving them and being loved in return is a big part of what makes us complete?”
Elizabeth Bevarly made this comment on the now defunct blog called Squawk Radio. It is a comment that has always disturbed me when I look over the thousands of romance books I’ve read and how few of them have memorable heroines. I have to wonder if it is because there is a prevailing sensibility that Bevarly simply articulated.
Heroines are often portrayed in isolation, no friends, often estranged from family or an orphan, teetering on the brink of financial ruin. They are depicted as sad sack individuals whose sexual identity was created for them out of one miserable experience with a man more interested in the growth of his own toenails than the satisfaction of his partner in bed. The whole driving motivation for the female is to achieve a better sense of completion through the love of a good man.
Bevarly says “Where did this come from, this idea that in order to be complete, we women had to be alone?” She goes on to say that “being loved in return is a big part of what makes us complete.”
This idea of completion is what the whole notion of feminism is against – the fulfillment of being a person of worth by having someone love you. The obverse then is that feminism does not allow you to be in love or be happy. The true teachings of feminism is an internal completion, having your life be fulfilling by you own accomplishments, your independence, your ability to survive emotionally and financially alone, without leaning on or relying upon another individual.
In Pat Gaffney’s Mad Dash (reviewed here), the heroine, Dash, relies too much on external completion in her search for fulfullment, whether it was her role as a daughter, a mother, a friend or a mentor. When some of those roles disintegrated, the role of “lover” was not enough. She had not yet come to grips with her need for independence as it butted against her dependence on others for emotional satisfaction. Perhaps that was the motivating force for her mid life crisis. Dash’s retreat from her husband to “find herself” truly does become a quest for internal fulfillment. Once she recognizes the source of discontent, it is easy to move back toward co-existence with her lover, her husband.
In contrast was the character in Gena Showalter’s Catch a Mate. The mother of the heroine suffers from a clinical psychosis. She caught her husband cheating on her and has allowed this one event to rule her entire life.
Yet it isn’t just the heroines mother who sends the message that completion and happiness are only brought on by the love of a good man.
Jillian, the heroine, does not want to forgive her father for cheating. Her brother addresses her.
Brent pinned her with a hard stare. "Don't you think it's time to bury the hatchet? Or do you want to end up like Mom, bitter and alone?–?
"And crazy,–? Brittany added sadly.
The theme of the book is that if Jilly doesn’t forgive a man and allow one into her life, she will be “bitter and alone”. When Anne, her former boss is confronted as to why she sold the business to Marcus and not Jilly, she replied
"You want the truth? I'll give it to you, but you're not going to like it.–? Anne settled deep into the couch and with a sigh, peered up at the slatted ceiling. "You would have ended up like me and I didn't want that for you.–?
She blinked in surprise. She didn't know what she'd expected to hear, but that wasn't it. "So what?–? she said, incredulous. "That's not for you to decide.–?
"Your bitterness toward men grows daily, Jillian. If you don't do something about it while you're still young, you are going to end up alone and miserable, more so than you are now. You'd always have wondered what could have been. You'd always have wondered where the years had gone.–?
But Anne now radiates a new zest for life because she has a hot young thing in her bed. Anne is achieving happiness through a man and urges subtly for Jilly to do the same.
When Jilly’s mother, who is emotionally ill, finally recognizes that she needs help, she does so because she wants some one to love her. She wants a man.
"There's more.–? Her mom drew in a long breath, as if bracing herself. She'd probably planned the speech all morning. "When you, Brent and Brittany said I had multiple personalities, well, it hurt. But it also helped me see myself through your eyes. I don't want to be the person who makes everyone around her miserable. I want a life and I want a man.–?
"I'm not finished. I'm tired of being alone. Maybe if I get my emotions under control, someone will stick around and love me for who I am.–? By the time she finished, she was crying. "I'm sorry. The medicine hasn't kicked in yet.–?
Of course, reliance on a man was the source of her problems in the first place. The author fails to sell me on the idea that Jilly’s mom is ever going to be emotionally healthy because she simply does not want to be healthy for herself. Her healthiness or lack there of is dependent on validation by someone else.
Bevarly’s statement promotes the idea that being in love is the only cure for loneliness. She also holds as the greatest ideal of the eros love and discounts the love one might have as a friend, a mother, a mentor, a daughter.
A friend of mine said that the real paradox is how to function as part of whatever support system you have and still maintain independence. How the support system conflicts with the independence to create either loneliness or dependence is ultimately the question but not one that romances strongly explore.
The point is that interdependence instead of dependence reflects healthier emotional characters. Caroline Linden and Jo Goodman both do an excellent job presenting independent individuals who might be hurting. Healing, however, doesn’t come through the partner or through the ephemeral concept of love. True healing comes internally with the partner simply providing support. The love is based on mutual respect instead of dependence. It is more believable that the happy ever after endures.
If it is the intention of the author to reflect an unhealthy emotional relationship such as existed in Liz Carlyle’s Never Deceive a Duke, then it should be clear. If not, it leads this reader to believe that the authors are failing to ask the important questions regarding character development such as what would happen to this character if she did not meet and fall in love with the hero? What is the emotional makeup of this character? In relationship focused book, a character driven book, which is what romances purportedly are at their core, the author must exhibit a strong understanding of the emotional health of her characters so that growth or movement is articulated.
Bevarly says that the message of feminism is “our choices were: A) Fall in love and be unhappy, or B) Remain alone and be happy.” Instead the choice that Bevarly presents is “alone and miserable or together and happy.” (the latter being my interpretation of Bevarly’s argument). Bevarly offers the same limited choice, simply the obverse. Both opinions are both limiting. Bevarly presents the exact same fallacy. Falling in love does not automatically equal happiness just as much as being alone does not equal independence. Why can’t Romance be about true love without that love being the only route to happiness?