Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, which means that lists of the most romantic reads are popping up all over the internet. Now, I have a huge problem with these lists. Mostly because of the books that continually appear on them. I’ll be honest, I’m not a massive fan of the romance genre anyway. It’s just not my thing. There’s nothing wrong with it but I get bored of the waiting. I also know that romance novels aren’t as terrible as certain people try to make out. There is a pretentiousness that often comes out when talking about romance that mostly occurs because, historically, it has been a genre written for women. I could go deeper into the problematic history of the genre and the marginalisation of certain writers/subjects but I think that’s best saved for a better writer. Instead, I want to focus on problematic books that appear on lists of Valentine’s Day reads. Let’s be honest, many of the supposedly most romantic books ever written feature relationships that we shouldn’t be celebrating. Everywhere I go, I see young bookish people romanticising toxic and awful relationships and I can stay silent no longer. Here are just a view literary loves that we really need to accept aren’t #goals.
Catherine and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Don’t get me wrong, I love Wuthering Heights as much as the next person but let’s not pretend that Cathy and Heathcliff are a good couple. One of the reasons that this book is mentioned so often throughout Valentine’s Day is due to a single quote that, taken out of context, seems super romantic.
Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.
This is the kind of quote that is always plastered over homemade items being sold on Etsy or being displayed on the walls of bookish people. The problem is the relationship as we see it, is anything but romantic. There may be a case that, deep down, Cathy and Heathcliff loved each other and society forced them apart. Maybe but, if I’m honest, I don’t buy it. I mean, take a look at the above in context and Cathy herself admits that the pair are meant to be together because they’re both so awful and self-destructive.
Heathcliff’s feelings for Cathy should not be view as love but as obsession. He wants to have every part of her because he feels as though he deservers her. I know love isn’t all fairytales but calling this a realistic version of love is overlooking a lot of terrible things. This isn’t what love is. This is all kinds of crazy. Their relationship is violent and full of jealously. They play games with each other and try their hardest to hurt each other. And let’s not forget the fact that they are also really willing to destroy innocent people’s lives for their games.
I know people who read the book like to think that Heathcliff can be saved but there is no evidence in the book to support that. Brontë subverts the romantic genre continually throughout the book to make it seem as though he can be saved by love. But he can’t. I mean, the guy never regrets any of his actions and dies guilt-free. That’s right, he doesn’t see the need to apologise for anything. I think it’s sad when people use this quotation out of context because they’re essentially just placing themselves in the role of Isabella. Poor, deluded and victimised Isabella.
Romeo and Juliet from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
The thing I always find funny about people who romanticise Romeo and Juliet is the fact that they conveniently forget the fact that they only meet because Romeo is supposedly madly in love with someone else. If Romeo wasn’t so obsessed with Rosaline, he wouldn’t have been at the party in the first place. He wouldn’t have seen Juliet to fall in love with her. You may be able to convince yourself that Romeo didn’t understand love before he met Juliet but, really, it’s just evidence of how changeable his affections are. How superficial his love is.
I worry that this play is considered to be one of the greatest love stories ever told because what does that say about the human race? The love we hold higher than any other is one between a 13 year old girl and a 17 year old boy who both end up dead after a few days together? Is that really the thing we should all be striving for? Should we consider our lives unfulfilled if we’ve made it beyond our teenage years without killing ourselves for the first boy/girl we meet?
Yes, I know that we shouldn’t automatically dismiss teenage love for not being true love. There are some people who meet in their teens who manage to stay the distance. The thing is, what evidence do we have that this is actually love? Rather, Romeo and Juliet are an example of desire that gets out of hand. They barely know each other and get caught up in their emotions. Add to that the drama of being kept apart by their families, you can see why it would happen. But love? I don’t think so. They barely spend any time together before they get married. Juliet is a thinly written character and, considering how bad Shakespeare writes his women, that’s saying something. How can they even claim to be in love? Let’s stop trying to make this seem okay. It’s really not.
Daisy and Jay from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
When did The Great Gatsby become a romance novel? Apparently, when I wasn’t looking, people started to see the doomed connection at the centre of this book as something to celebrate. So, I have to wonder, did I miss something? This isn’t a case of star-crossed lovers who are being kept apart by the circumstances. They might have genuine feelings for each other but nothing in the book that suggests they would be a good couple. They are such different people and follow different paths. They occupy different worlds and, as a result, don’t see love in the same way. The pair even look back on their time together in vastly different ways.
For Daisy, love is far less important than stability. She wants to know that she will be safe and love doesn’t offer that. Tom provides a secure future and “unquestionable practicality”. Her affair with Gatsby is simply a brief escape. She never has any real intention of leaving her world for Jay’s. She feels so secure and safe that she is able to play these games. The idea of morality is blurred in her world. Neither Tom or Daisy are punished for their infidelity because they have a safety net. Their life continues. There was never a question of her being with Gatsby because she would be losing that.
Gatsby may have money but he doesn’t belong in that world. He will never have that level of security. Something that is only highlighted in his death. Though he may truly love her, Daisy also comes to represent something unattainable that he was denied. He doesn’t really see her as a real person but as a personification of wealth and privilege. Of the life that he doesn’t have. He has built her up so much in his mind that she would never be able to love up to his expectations. She is the prize that he needs to really prove that he has made it. Something that he needs to add to his collection of beautiful things. Not only would it not help him but it isn’t a good foundation for a relationship.
Severus Snape from Harry Potter
Now, I don’t want to go into this for too long because I’ve discussed it ag great length in another post. However, the fact remains that Severus Snape has inadvertently become something of a romantic hero. I have many problems with J.K. Rowling as you probably know by now but one of her major crimes/missteps is making the world see Snape’s “love” for Lily as something to strive for. And it’s all because of one fucking word.
This word is quoted so often and it makes me want to scream. The fact that Snape has been obsessed with Lily since his childhood isn’t something to swoon over but is a reason to call the police. For one thing, the feelings he has for Lily weren’t reciprocated at all. They started off as friends but that didn’t last long thanks to Snape’s anti-muggle tendancies. Even when she turned him down and chose someone else, Snape couldn’t let go. Is this love?
No. It’s a dangerous obsession. An obsession that reaches such heights that Snape is willing to let Voldemort kill her husband and baby in exchange for her life. I’m assuming so he can have another crack at it once she’s over the grief. Anyone who thinks offering your newborn son and husband to a ruthless murderer is a suitable courting ritual needs to think about things for a second. Snape isn’t a romantic hero. He’s a pathetic loser who never got over the fact that he was rejected by the one girl who was ever nice to him. But she was under no obligation to fall in love with him. The fact that Harry forgives him at the end of the books is disgusting. Not letting go of a crush you’ve had for decades does not wipe out all of the toxic behaviour he’s previously displayed.
Jane and Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
I admit, that this is one that I don’t expect everyone to agree with. After all, Jane Eyre is undeniably written as a love story and Brontë goes some way towards showing that Mr Rochester changes his ways before Jane agrees to marry him. Yes, no matter what I do, I can’t quite accept that this love story should be held in such high regard. After all, there are plenty of moments that, had they happened to you, it might not be easy to forgive. If your friend was dating a guy like this, you’d tell her to get out of there as fast as she could. Yet, the brooding Mr Rochester is constantly named one of the best romantic heroes in literature.
Obviously, the big one is locking his wife in an attic. That’s a pretty big thing to deal with and move forward from. It should also set off some alarm bells about what kind of husband he’d be. Yes, I know it was a complicated situation but he lied about it so easily. I’m not sure many people would be quite so willing to rush into marriage. Of course, it’s not just Bertha that should cause questions. Some of Rochester’s actions toward Jane are proper dodgy. Let’s not forget that he dresses up as a gypsy to read her fortune. He creates a fake engagement to make her jealous. He tries to marry her when he’s already married. Finally, he suggests that Jane stay as his mistress. I just don’t think he’d be the kind of guy you should be giving so many chances to.
I know that we’re supposed to see the ending of the novel as a moment of empowerment. That Jane’s rejection of St John is the final step towards her gaining her independence. Once she turns him down, Jane is now able to be with Rochester as more of an equal that as a naïve employee. But, come on. She’s still agreeing to marry an awful man who manipulated her. A man who used his position as her employer to get her to almost commit adultery. Wouldn’t it have been empowering if she’d realised that she was better than both of them and found someone decent to marry?
Henry and Claire from The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
I know that many of you will think I’m mad to include this. Isn’t this book one of the greatest love stories of the recent years? No. I find everything about this book super creepy. Mostly because the love story at its heart lacks one major thing: consent. How can you tell me that this is a love to be celebrated when an adult man essentially grooms a child into becoming his wife? Although, I guess you could argue that there’s no free will on either party. Everyone is working on the basis of predetermination. So, why do more people not find it creepy?
If you, as a young girl, find out you’re going to marry a man who keeps visiting you, then what choice do you have? You’d surely get swept up in the epic romance without a second’s thought. But their is such a weird power balance at play here. Henry knows so much more about their lives and is more in control of everything. Also, he keeps popping back to have sex with his wife’s younger self. I know it’s not adultery but it’s pretty dodgy behaviour.
The fact that Henry has no idea who Claire is the first time he meets her in his timeline shouldn’t change matters. I know the timeline is messed up but it’s still fucking creepy. To be a constant presence in a young girl’s life and then accidentally let it slip that you’re gonna marry her? It’s super creepy. Then there’s the fact that she refuses to move forward after his death because he could turn up at any time. There’s no freedom here. I hate it.
Sherlock and Irene Adler from A Scandal in Bohemia by Arthur Conan Doyle
Okay, strictly speaking this doesn’t fit with the other but this is one of my biggest literary bugbears. It’s also something that has only intensified thanks to the modern adaptations of these books. Let’s get this straight, there is never any hint of romance between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler in Conan Doyle’s books. The Holmes of the books never shows Sherlock as having any romantic intentions and, instead, focuses on the brilliance of his mind. Here, Irene Adler is simply the only woman to ever outsmart him. She is notable to him only for this fact. Not because he has romantic feelings towards her but an admiration.
In fact, Holmes is only as impressed with Adler because, in general, he has such a disregard for women. He never expects greatness from them. He very rarely gives them any time and, on the few occasions that he does, it is only ever due to his surprise at how shrews they are. So, of course, Adler is going to stand out. He never expected to be outwitted by a woman so she will stick in his mind.
In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.
Dr Watson makes is crystal clear where we stand. No love. Just respect. So, why do modern adaptations keep presenting her as a sexy, criminal love interest for the detective? Are modern audiences so narrow-minded that they can’t accept a man who doesn’t have an interest in romance?
Then there’s the fact that modern adaptations need Sherlock to be special. It’s not enough that he has a brilliant mind. He needs to be more akin to a magician. Logic and reason aren’t enough. He’s become more than a man. So, as such, none of the men writing the recent adaptions will allow a simple woman to get the better of him. Instead, she needs to get into dangerous situations and allow him to rescue her. It’s ridiculous and they have all gone someway towards absolutely destroying the character. Irene Adler deserves more than being Sherlock’s ex. She is too fabulous for that. And don’t even get me started on Stephen Moffat’s quotes about her. That man should not be allowed to make any more TV shows.