I was watching the DVD of Twilight the other night and enjoying every moment of the sexual tension between the characters when I had a sudden revelation. The tension in Twilight is very much reminiscent of romance in the 1800s.
I immediately embarked on a theory. I’d love your feedback on it. The theory is that in this age of rough and ready sex, the sexual tension essential for romance is much harder to come by.
When I say that, I’m thinking of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. To me, part of the essence of their romance is that it can’t be resolved until the very end of the novel. Mr Darcy’s proposal is an explosion of repressed passion, of the attraction that he has forced himself to control because it is inappropriate. Elizabeth’s angry reaction forces it down again, and for the rest of the novel the tension between desire and the forbidden builds up until finally, at the very end, it can be resolved. The same is true of Edward, whose – inappropriate, though for entirely different reasons — desire is palpable, but because of the difference between them, cannot be fulfilled. Had Bella Swan been able to jump into bed with Edward Cullen immediately, that kind of romantic tension would have been much more difficult to evoke.
Think of how much more charged the atmosphere was in the early 1800s when a young lady could be compromised if she was caught simply kissing a young man. Think of that tension between Edward and Bella — the smouldering gazes, the unfulfilled desire, and think that this was a daily experience for young ladies and gentlemen at the time.
Add to it the additional uncertainly — which is very alien to us now, and which isn’t there in Twilight – of the innocent young ladies who knew very little of the physical details. No sex education. No ‘let’s sit down and talk about this’ conversation between mother and daughter (certainly not between father and daughter) until the day before her marriage. Which left her wondering and guessing at the meaning of those strange sensations that were overwhelming her.
It’s hard for us now – surrounded everywhere by explicit and suggestive images — to envision the quality of romance in those days, heightened by all these factors.
I’m thinking of Caroline Bingley in The Other Mr Darcy – a very tense, proper young lady if I ever saw one – trying to make sense of her feelings for Robert Darcy after he crosses the line between proper speech into sensual innuendo. What a revelation it is to her that she can possibly be looked at that way!
And then there is Georgiana Darcy in The Darcy Cousins, whose innocence is so complete that her daring, unconventional cousin Clarissa has to coach her in the Art of flirtation.
That adult innocence is almost impossible for us to recreate, because we would have to return to a much simpler world to fully comprehend it. But I think Twilight does a wonderful job returning to a theme that has been lost to us – the theme of desire held in check, controlled and made all more powerful because of it.
So here’s my question: Is romance as we know it now a much watered down version of romance in the 18th century? I’d love to have your thoughts.