History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

18 March 2009

Love in Subtext

One of the things I love about the blogosphere is the way a post and the attendant discussion can inspire another post and create a rich conversation among readers and writers. My post about The Privileged Class Enjoying Its Privileges was inspired by a wonderful post of Pam's. Pam’s post a couple of weeks ago took off on the 1930s romantic comedies I’d mentioned in my post and as she said social class and escapist glitter in the Depression-era movie, The Philadelphia Story.

My thoughts also drifted to The Philadelphia Story after some wonderful follow up comments on my post. I got out my video and watched the movie for the umpteenth time. It’s been one of my favorites since I first saw it at the age of ten. Even before that, I’d read and loved the Philip Barry play on which it is based. What struck me watching this time is how, in a movie that says a great deal about love and types of love and in which who will end up with whom is an open question, Tracy and Dexter’s love story is almost entirely in subtext. They talk about their past, but they don’t talk about their present feelings until the very end of the movie, when he proposes. And even that is indirect. Tracy is announcing to the assembled wedding guests that she and her fiancé have called off the wedding. She asks Dexter what to say next, and he feeds her the lines a speech saying that two years ago I did you out of wedding in this house and I hope to make it up to you by going through with it now as originally planned. Even their brief exchange afterwards doesn’t contain any “I’ve always loved yous”, but the words they do use (”Are you sure?” “Not in the least; but I’ll risk it–will you?” “Oh–I’ll be yare now–I’ll promise to be yare!” “Be whatever you like, you’re my Redhead.”) are somehow more meaningful.

One of my favorite Georgette Heyers, The Grand Sophy, is similar in that hero’s and heroine’s feelings are not expressed either in dialogue or, this being a novel, in inner monologue. Sophy and Charles spar from their first meeting. Perhaps the closest we get to a window into Charles’s feelings is the moment when he looks at Sophy across his young sister’s sickbed as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Charles does ask Sophy to marry him but even then neither says “I love you” in so many words. In fact his proposal is Will you marry me, vile and abominable girl that you are? and her reply is Yes, but, mind, it is only to save my neck from being wrung!

I first read The Grand Sophy at about the same age I first saw The Philadelphia Story. I remember reading the scenes between Sophy and Charles over and over, trying to tease out who felt what when, trying to decipher clues to their emotions (just as I would look for clues to Tracy’s and Dexter’s feelings whenever I saw The Philadelphia Story). Much as I love Heyers like Venetia and Frederica, in which there is much more exploration of the characters’ feelings, there’s something fascinating about a story in which so much is unexpressed.

Writing this blog, I tried to think of other stories in which the romance develops without the feelings being verbalized. Mulder and Scully’s love story unfolds without the words being spoken and without the viewer even being quite sure what is happening when. Yet the clues are there when you rewatch the episodes (one of the things I love about rewatching Seasons 6 and 7 in particular). Mulder’s I don’t want to risk–losing you in Requiem (the Season 7 finale) is much more powerful than a more explicit declaration of feeling.

Thinking back to my Declarations, Resolutions, & Other Heart-Stopping Moments post, Gil and Ingold in Barbara Hambly's Darwath Trilogy don’t express their feelings until that last scene where Gil asks Ingold if he wants her to stay with him. Their feelings for each other are more palpable than Charles’s and Sophy’s but expressed in gestures and often as much in what is not said as in what is said. The same is true of Holmes and Russell in Laurie King's Mary Russell books. The books are first person, so the reader is privy to more of Russell’s feelings than in some of other stories mentioned. But Russell and Holmes never express those feelings to each other. And Holmes finds a way to propose without putting any of it into words (You do realize how potentially disastrous this whole thing is? I am old and set in my ways. I will give you little affection and a great deal of irritation, though heaven knows you’re aware of how difficult I can be). Neither has said “I love you” to the other through the eight books of the series thus far. Though Holmes’s behavior in those books perhaps contradicts his claim that he would give Russell “little affection and a great deal of irritation.” In fact, to me one of the most romantic lines in the series was in Locked Rooms in which he says (don’t have my copy in front of me so I’m paraphrasing) that he doesn’t think the the sun rising in the west would cause his heart to stop but The sight of my wife going over the rail of a ship might have done the trick however.

My own Charles and Mélanie don’t often verbalize their feelings (in fact one reader on my website asked if I ever intended to dramatize the moment where they first say "I love you" to each other). Neither says “I love you" in Beneath a Silent Moon, including in the final scene. Charles instead tells Mel he “needs her” which somehow seemed a stronger declaration to me in that moment. They do say “I love you” in the first chapter of Secrets of a Lady (before their happy jewel box life completely falls apart) but even then it’s with the slightly embarrassed acknowledgment that the words can seem a cliché (Will it sounds hopelessly redundant if I say I love you too?). Charles tells Mel he loves her again, late in the book, but the words are clipped, almost harsh, wrung out of him by extreme emotion (as is his first declaration of love in a vignette I posted recently on my website). Charles and Mélanie talk in code more than verbalizing their feelings directly. In that, I suspect I was influenced by many of the stories discussed in this post.

What do you think of love stories in which the romance is expressed in subtext? Do you like them or do you prefer more explicit declarations? Writers, do you find characters who only admit their feelings in code easier or more difficult to write than characters who express their feelings more freely?

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Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I love Love in Subtext when it is well done, subtle but beautiful when it finally reveals itself to you. Those pages where you read past it and suddenly realize "Oh, he loves her." However, I think it is REALLY difficult to write that sort of thing well. In romance you walk a fine line between enchanting the reader and really ticking them off!

6:26 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

What a wonderful combination of several different but analogous discussions. I am positive Avon never says the words "I love you" to Leonie in Heyer's THESE OLD SHADES but as the story goes on the certainty grows in both the reader and Leonie's mind.

In Karen Moning's Fae series, Barrons has only once or twice demonstrated any affection to the heroine, Mac, but there is no doubt in my mind that he loves, or is falling in love with her. It's a first person narrative so that helps the writer keep the secret but there is also the challenge of showing the reader through Mac's eyes while she remains confused.

in Deanna Raebourn's series that begins with SILENT IN THE GRAVE, it's only under the influence of drugs that the reader is given any idea that Brisbane is falling in love with Julia. At the end of the first book he gives her a gift that says it all but they are about to go their separate ways. The series continues with SILENT IN THE SANCTUARY and so does their relationship. Again this story is first person from Julia's pov.

These are two of my favorite series and I heartily recommend them.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I love Love in Subtext because I'm one of those readers who likes to figure things out and import my imagination into the experience when I read. And I think I tend to write that way as well. But I've heard from agents and editors (at least where my own writing is concerned) that they want more explicit and direct expressions of thought and feeling where Love is concerned. I guess they think the readers will miss it if it's not spelled out for them. Personally, I disagree, but their job is to make my novel the best it can be ... so I second-guess myself and wonder if they're right.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I prefer when love is expressed via subtext. I’m actually turned off by books that end with a deluge of “I love yous”. Ruins the whole read for me. It just isn’t realistic, at least not to me. It’s tinny and false, a pantomime for the masses. Real emotion, real love, in my experience is more likely to be expressed in subtext, in obscure dialogue, in ways that SHOW the other person that you love them without ever using the hollow platitudes of a Hallmark card.

But I know that my view is certainly not universal. I’ve received more than one comment from readers who felt cheated because my heroes don’t actually say I LOVE YOU. Readers who feel that only coming out and stating it as fact makes it TRUE and lasting. I can see their point, I just vehemently disagree. And I have more than one friend who always includes a sweeping I LOVE YOU scene in their books (I skim past them, so as not to ruin the glow of a book I otherwise enjoyed).

Tracy and Dexter’s love story is almost entirely in subtext. They talk about their past, but they don’t talk about their present feelings until the very end of the movie, when he proposes. And even that is indirect . . . Even their brief exchange afterwards doesn’t contain any “I’ve always loved yous”, but the words they do use are somehow more meaningful.

THIS! This is what I’m always after when I write these kinds of scenes, and like Tracy, I’m sure I caught the infection from old movies and Heyer novels.

My first book's “proposal scene” doesn't even contain an actual proposal:

Over the heads of the crowd she saw their friends in hot pursuit and began to laugh, the sound bubbling up out of her uncontrollably. A few of them actually looked concerned as they wove through the milling crowd. As if Dauntry were far more dangerous than her highwayman had been.

She raised her head, bracing her hands on Dauntry’s back. He’d lost his hair ribbon, as well as his domino and mask. Dark curls spilled over his shoulders, twisted down his back. There was not a chance that most of the sea of revelers didn’t recognize her. Didn’t recognize them.

She could almost feel the gossip swirling around them like midges on a hot summer night. The entire ton would be buzzing with it by morning. But, as she’d be the Countess of Somercote before she was likely to see any of them again, it really didn’t matter.

Cynical and wrong as it might be, a marriage and a title would sweep this all away. Make it nothing more than a mildly amusing story. Gossip was only truly savory when attached to scandal.

Dauntry marched straight out the gates, past the stunned and titillated faces of the hordes, and down the street to the top of the Vauxhall Stairs. He slung her down off his shoulder and set her on her feet, one hand still locked about her arm, pressing down on bruises he wasn’t aware of.

George forced herself not to flinch. He wouldn’t forgive himself if she complained, if he knew.

“Well, curst Katharina?” He let go of her, raising one hand to brush a curl from her eyes. He swept it back, hooking it behind her ear, fingers tracing the curve of her ear, trailing down her neck.

“Yes, Petruchio?”

“Yes—the very word I’ve been waiting for.” He bent his head and kissed her again, hands twisting into her domino, locking her to him.

George pressed close, twined her hands in his loose hair, and kissed him back.

I think it works. And LORD SCANDAL isn’t any different. No avows of love, just teasing.

8:30 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Louisa, I love those moments when you suddenly realize the characters love each other (usually before they do themselves) without being directly told it. I agree they can be tricky to write. But then I also think "I love you" declarations can be tricky--it's very hard to have them not seem anticlimactic or cliched.

Mary, I almost mentioned "These Old Shades" in the post. Avon admits to Rupert and Fanny that he loves Léonie toward the end (right before he goes to rescue her). Before that, they've speculated about his feelings but the reader doesn't know his direct thoughts. In his last scene with Léonie she says "You do not love me?" and he says "Too well to marry you" which is about as close as he gets to an out and out declaration. One of the things I love about that last scene is how Léonie draws an admission of his feelings out of him.

Thanks for the recommendation of the Moning and Raybourn series!

9:43 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, it's interesting that you've had agents and editors want romantic feelings spelled out more explicitly. Like you, I like to figure things for myself and draw inferences. As I mentioned in my post, those are often the scenes I reread the most.

Kalen, as I said above, I think it can be really hard to have characters say "I love you" without it sounding cliched, anticlimactic or just plain out of character :-). What I love about the proposal scene from "Lord Scandal" is that it's so very much in character for both George and Dauntry. The Kate and Petruchio reference is their own private code.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

In romance you walk a fine line between enchanting the reader and really ticking them off!

Which is why, Louisa, my web page doesn't link to every review my books have gotten in the romance press.

I love private language, shared jokes between lovers. I love making it hard for them to get to the Declaration (one of the eight indispensable "Narrative Events" lit critic Pamela Regis prescribes for the genre in her book A Natural History of the Romance Novel). I write self-conscious, wordy people, who need a kick in the butt to get them to say the obvious (gosh, wonder where I learned that?)

But at the risk of being redundant, I'll just repeat what for me might be the greatest declaration of love I know. Quoted by Tracy a few posts back, it's Benedick to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing):

I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?

I love it when a declaration is true and obvious and even redundant and still inspire awe.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That Much Ado declaration is so wonderful, Pam. Such simple, direct words, and yet it still captures the wonder of love and manages to be totally unique to Benedict.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

How funny-- my little sister and I were just having a discussion on a very similar topic, the distinction between the Beatrices and Benedicks of the world and the Heros and Claudios. Personally, I find the Beatrices and the Benedicks, the ones who are uncomfortable with their emotions and need to have their feelings wrenched out of them or expressed in circumlocutions, far more interesting than the glib emotional universe of the sunnier lovers.

3:31 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great way to put it, Lauren--Beatrice & Benedicts vs. Heros and Claudios! I too find the Beatrice and Benedicts much more interesting. I think it's that there's something powerful about feelings that characters *don't* wear on their sleeve. The smallest gesture or word can be infused with so much meaning.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Hero and Claudio -- as well as Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley. Romantic comedy often finds a way to tell its story twice.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Good point, Pam. Although part of the Jane/Bingley conflict is apparently that Jane isn't effusive enough about her feelings, causing Darcy to think she doesn't love Bingley.

2:00 PM  

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