Valentine's Day is a lovely idea but what has romance ever done for us?

THERE’S no point in railing against tomorrow’s satin red lovehearts and cutesy cards with their saccharine verses. They’re harmless, often heartwarming — and sometimes even fun.

For instance, the lines from Lisa Swerling’s little book Me Without You would give anyone the warm fuzzies: “Me without you is like sky without blue, foot without shoe, hair without do, cow without moo, kung without fu… and on it goes).

And, of course, there’s also the matter of Lent. Surely anyone who has sworn off chocolate, wine and/or merrymaking will be granted something akin to a plenary indulgence during the annual celebration of yearning.

All of that has to be on the plus side, yet Valentine’s Day is an uncomfortable reminder of a niggling question that just has to be asked — what has romance ever done for us?

Has it not just filled us with notions and made us hanker after the giddy beginnings of things?

How could anything possibly live up to those earliest breath-stopping representations — in print and on screen — of affairs of the heart?

I’m old enough to remember the original BBC adaptation of Poldark (1975, as you ask). Even then, I knew that in the real world romance would probably not be accompanied by thunderclaps and cymbal clashes but, at the very least, there would be a horse galloping across a rugged, unforgiving landscape.

It’s interesting to see that last year’s hit series starring Aidan Turner laid on the galloping-horse scenes with bosom-heaving regularity. That notion of romance clearly still has currency.

In general, though, romance has proven impossible to pin down. It is a shapeshifting, amorphous thing that shows flashes of itself in the pages of novels, in smash-hit romcoms and, hopefully, on days like tomorrow over countless candlelit dinners for two.

Let’s hope a little bit of magic fairy dust graces everyone’s table this weekend. We all want to be set a-flutter but what a disappointment this year’s Valentine’s Day advice has been.

This week, an endless stream of ‘countdown to cupid’ emails plopped into my inbox, exhorting me to shower (I’m not joking), shave, exfoliate, apply fan tan and take on board “a few handy hair-loving tips to achieve the lustrous locks we all want on the day of love”.

That last one made me want to ring up Janis Ian and say, “Like you, we learned the truth at 17, Janis, – “that love was meant for beauty queens/And high-school girls with clear-skinned smiles” – but nothing has changed.

Which one of us doesn’t remember the Valentine that never came and waiting, in vain, for that pink envelope to fall on the hall mat? Certainly there will be people out there this weekend who will experience the same awful sting of some imagined rejection.

It’s not entirely the fault of those selling stuff to make us beautiful, though they do play a role. Let’s hope that in today’s media-savvy world most of us are discerning enough to know that those peddling lustrous locks are selling hair product and not romance.

Real romance, as we know from countless novels, starting with Jane Austen and as many romcom movies, is the story of girl meeting (the wrong) boy and then discovering that Christmas-jumper wearing, arrogant Mr D’arcy is really the one for her.

What is encouraging about this recurring version of events is it acknowledges that the path to true love never did run smooth, though it invariably dangles the carrot of a happy-ever-after ending.

There are more gritty versions of the romance story — ‘Wuthering Heights’, for example — where rapture is tempered with a good deal of agony and the tale of love turns not on the other’s presence but their absence.

But where does that leave us? The happy-ever-after version is far more appealing but it lulls us into a false sense of security and puffs us up with expectations that are bound to fall short.

The Heathcliff version is cruel and cold and no amount of rapture is worth that kind of torment.

So is romance real at all? Many argue that it was invented, though not, of course, in any tangible sense like the internal combustion engine or penicillin.

Some historians pinpoint the Middle Ages and ideas of courtly love as the start of romance as a cultural phenomenon, but the fire of passion must surely be older than that. What about the Greeks who went to war over Helen of Troy, or Cleopatra and Antony or the cycle of Irish myths that tell the passionate story of Fionn’s best warrior Diarmuid, who fell for Grainne?

The idea of romance, it seems, has been around for a long time, though it’s hard to know how people understood it. However, judging from the hints those myths and legends have left behind, romance always seems to have had a big, all-consuming presence, sweeping its participants away on a highly charged journey.

Who wouldn’t have high expectations, which brings us back to that awkward question: what has romance ever done for us? Is it fair to say that it has set us up for a fall, filling our heads — as it does — with dreams that are never quite attainable?

It has certainly left us confused and given us many reasons to be cynical. But people, in general, aren’t cynical. Ask them about the most romantic thing their partner has ever done for them and you might be privileged enough to hear about the small, thoughtful acts of deep love and appreciation that keep those lucky enough to be in relationships together and happy.

Some favourites: he once made me a necklace of daisies; she tucked a Snickers bar into a rolled-up pair of socks in my suitcase when I was away on business. Add your own to the list and don’t let anyone browbeat you into thinking that romance is what is pushed on us on Valentine’s Day.


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