Jul 4th 2016

Three alternative romantic fiction authors that will heat up any beach trip

by Zoe Strimpel

Doctoral researcher, History, University of Sussex

There’s no better way to escape the stresses and strains of work and – for many at the current juncture – the acute anxiety of geopolitics, than to put your reading into “romance” gear. Britain versus the world is a gloomy real-world problem; for summer relief, try instead the question of the heart versus the mind. That is the core problem of much of my very favourite, intellectually inspiring fiction.

Chick lit is out, I’m afraid: an avowed literary snob, I like my dilemmas of desire served up in rich, fulsome English, with slowly unravelled plots and textured characters, not two-dimensional patriarchal fairy tales dished up in elementary school grammatical structures (hides under the table).

Current favourites are George Gissing’s The Odd Women and an assortment of Margaret Drabble, the queen of 1970s British letters, and pretty much anything by Iris Murdoch.

George Gissing

For the tensions and irrationalities of romantic feeling, The Odd Women (1893) is superlative. What it does so brilliantly is take one of the burning sets of issues of the day – women’s rights, particularly in relation to marriage – and pits its intellectual and ideological propositions against the anarchic, intrusive power of dawning love.

Let me lure you further. The book’s main characters are two vehement feminists, the excellently named Rhoda Nunn, and her partner in crime, the angelic yet forceful Mary Barfoot. Together – they live together, too – they seek to save single, or “odd” women from the desolate dregs of the old maids’ job market by training them up as clerks on typewriters.

Suddenly, Rhoda finds herself in an odd position. An avowed spinster, determined to practice what she preaches, she is also of “strong and shapely” figure and “handsome” feature. So when Mary’s sexy cousin, Everard, begins visiting the house on return from his relaxed bachelor travels around the Orient, he takes an interest in her. Rhoda’s position is the following: “I am seriously convinced that before the female sex can be raised from its low level there will have to be a widespread revolt against sexual instinct.”

Catnip for Everard who – as stubborn as Rhoda – begins a woo that is hard to resist, seeming to fall not only for Rhoda but for women’s equality, too. The delicious yet unexpected conclusion to this story is head and shoulders above your usual romance fare, the work of a master stylist who never abandons humour, even as he makes you cry.

Margaret Drabble

Drabble, 80 years later, gives a softer but equally crystalline gender-aware portrait of relationships. In The Needle’s Eye (1972), reserved Simon Camish goes to a dreadful supper party and is offended by the guests’ vulgarity. But then rough-skinned, makeup-free, and self-dispossessed heiress Rose walks in, and with her genteel delicacy of manner and genuine modesty, immediately entrances Simon, himself married to a minor heiress he can’t stand.

Simon gets involved in Rose’s divorce saga; desperate to play the legal knight in shining armour (he is a lawyer) to Rose’s sensitive yet deeply stubborn damsel in distress. Both reveal astonishing integrity of character as Rose is buffeted with extreme violence for rejecting social expectations by insisting on being poor.

But if you’re feeling anxious, I recommend The Millstone, Drabble’s 1965 peach about an adorable unmarried scholar of Elizabethan verse who gets pregnant the first time she has sex, and never tells the father, who she worships from afar. It’s both soothing and sad. The father is a BBC radio announcer, and she merely switches on the radio when she wants to feel reassured by him, which is a lovely bit of romance. It is a very slim book, but it’s perfectly formed: a story of an intelligent, liberated woman leaving the man out while falling in love with the baby everyone told her not to have on any account.

Happy ending? Unclear. Like real life, in which convention, rationality and deep emotional drives do not always mesh? Definitely, but sweeter.

Iris Murdoch

Iris isn’t for everyone. But I have loved her ever since a friend handed me The Black Prince (1973) on a rainy holiday in Sicily. Cowering on a deserted beach, I found myself intrigued and amused as ageing author Bradley becomes increasingly caught in a cat’s cradle of deadly desire, starring a striking assortment of women with men’s names such as Christian and Julian.

Booker Prize-winning The Sea, the Sea (1978) also completely bewitched me: once more, a story of explosive obsession ripping through the reserve of an otherwise orderly, if arrogant, English life of letters.

And currently I’m savouring The Sandcastle (1957), about a middle-aged Surrey schoolmaster, Bill Mor, who falls ill-advisedly in love with the deliciously named Rain Carter, a nymph-like portrait painter hired to capture the retired headmaster. The parched school grounds, the doe-like yet strong Rain, the prudish ferocity of Mrs Mor and their children’s spectral games cast a magic spell, just as Murdoch – I assume – intended.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Literary Essays

Mar 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In my essay Elie Wiesel’s Early Work I promised a return to the novels by Albert Camus (1913-1960), 1957 Nobel Laureate in Literature. Then the world as we know it changed with the onset of COVID-19 and the relevance of Camus’ novel The Plague, published in 1947, struck hard."
Jan 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The harmful impact of air pollution caused by diesel exhaust fumes on our health is well known. It’s responsible for causing everything from respiratory problems to dementia and even certain types of cancers. But what most people don’t realise is that exhaust fumes aren’t the only cause of air pollution. In fact, up to 55% of roadside traffic pollution is made of non-exhaust particles, with around 20% of that pollution coming from brake dust. And as our latest research reveals, these particles may be just as damaging to our lungs as exhaust fumes."
Oct 26th 2019
EXTRACT: "We didn’t have emails or social media back then, so I’d usually call once a year and check in. Though I was careful not to ask, my ex-wife would graciously give me updates on “The Baby.” She told him about me early on and he just shrugged and said, “Okay.” The title of ‘father’ belongs to the man who raised him. She did once tell me there are times when she’s washing dishes or preoccupied, and he’ll come up behind her saying something, and she’ll turn around expecting to see me. "
Sep 10th 2019
Extract: "Khodasevich’s prose is as crystalline as his poetry, and this rendition by veteran translator and academic Sarah Vitali reads with such punch and verve that some of the personality sketches might have been written today for a mainstream magazine. Her endnotes add background and fascinating detail that put the forgotten era in context. "
Jul 17th 2019
Blurring the line between fiction and real life is one of the intrigues of good writing. Much of Saul Bellow’s wild antics in “Humboldt’s Gift” actually happened to him, but how much? Did Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” originate in his personal life?  Intriguing, perhaps, but none of this really matters if the story is credible and the writing holds up. Any reader with an analytical bent will wonder, however, where the truth is located in a good story. I certainly did, reading Mary L. Tabor’s new collection of twelve short stories, "The Woman Who Never Cooked."
May 31st 2018
Postcolonial scholarship has overwhelmingly focused on the legacy of Western empires – but despite a long history of foreign expansionism and domination, Russia, in its various incarnations, has never received the same amount of critical scrutiny. The Tsarist empire’s position outside the West proper, the Soviet Union’s stated opposition to imperialism, and the fact that Russia’s empire was a contiguous land empire rather than an overseas one all helped shield it from postcolonial critique. The result is a strange oversight – especially considering the fact that the heir to the largest continental empire in modern history clearly remains uncomfortable with the independence of many of its former subordinates.
May 24th 2018

At the age of 50, Henry James created a detailed portrait of an experimental novelist in old age, in his story “The Middle Years.” Terminally ill, the novelist Dencombe receives in the mail the published version of what he realizes will be his final work, a novel titled The Middle Years.

Apr 26th 2018
I would like to share a love story – framed by two solitary moments (separated by fourteen years, two months, three days, and sixteen hours) before the same telephone in the same hotel room in Boston, Massachusetts. But, to begin with, let me go back to the first meeting I had with the young woman. I met Julie in a museum, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, in Concord, Massachusetts, on May 22, 2003, a few minutes after 10:30 AM – just three days before the bicentennial of Mr. Emerson’s birth, and three days after my own thirty-third birthday. But I hope no one will think that I believe I can parallel Mr. Emerson on any greater terms than that small coincidence.
Apr 25th 2018
Ever since I first began listening to popular music on a transistor radio, I have been fascinated by one-hit wonders. Today, oldies stations can devote entire weekends to singers and groups who had one hit and were never heard from again, including such classics as the Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” and the Murmaids’ “Popsicles and Icicles.” When I began studying creativity, I discovered that one-hit wonders were not unique to pop. Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial are celebrated instances in which the name of an artist instantly calls to mind a single work, and vice versa....
Apr 3rd 2018

Serious readers like to see a review or two about big, complicated novels before deciding whether to devote their life to them.  The thousand-page Russian classics all seem to carry this warning flag. 

Feb 23rd 2018
For two years I was president of a member group of the Road Runners Club of America. I enjoyed my service, but I did not seek a second term.
Sep 23rd 2017

PRINCETON – This summer, at literary festivals and bookstores around the world, readers celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the debut of the first book in J.K.

Jun 9th 2017

As a pianist, I have spent a lifetime reading interviews with other pianists. But I would know, above all, what it is precisely that others think about when they play. People often ask me that question.

Feb 6th 2017

During all of my adult life as an author and pianist, Ralph Waldo Emerson has been for me the supreme and unremitting guide to the Western canon.

Feb 1st 2017

Rarely does a musician with a Juilliard background and a Ph.D. in piano performance find the energy, much less the time, to conceive, plot, write and publish a series of well-constructed novels.

Jan 24th 2017

The Wall Street Journal has made an egregious error. I'm not talking about their coverage of Donald Trump, Russian hacking, or any other such ephemera. This concerns something much more serious: classic literature.

Jan 7th 2017

A Talmudic question has much intrigued me: Two men are stranded in the desert. Only one has water. If he shares it, they both die; if he keeps it, he lives and his companion dies. What should he do? Rabbi Akiva taught that the man has the right to drink it.

Oct 14th 2016

To the surprise of many, Bob Dylan has become the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel prize in literature.

Sep 13th 2016

It is 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl – considered by many to be the world’s number one storyteller. His books have received enthusiastic responses from millions of children all around the world.