The Virtues of This Lonely Flower: Rehabilitating the Romantic Roundhead
I have an axe to grind – or more specifically, I have a 36″ munitions quality Birmingham steel cavalry backsword.
This “Poldark ” thing is starting to really irritate me. The scarred, brooding, manly hero, galloping across the cliffs on his stallion, yet in touch with his social conscience…. oh, will you give over with that stuff! (And we will not mention the strange swirls of body hair, nicely clipped like a prize poodle. And we all know what happened to poodles in the 17th century…. Prince Rupert’s prize battle-poodle being knocked on the head at the battle of Marston Moor!)
Aside from the fact that poor Aiden Turner looks like a heroin addict – grey and red-eyed and sweaty, with the skin-tone of elderly bread dough – in the publicity material in my local branch of Waterstone’s, I keep looking at Ross Poldark and thinking – I mean really? What do you have that Hollie Babbitt doesn’t have? Or even, heaven help us, Hapless Russell – and he’s got a better scar?
Perhaps it is that I’m a romantic realist. Perhaps I like my heroes to be men that I might like to spend time with. I like to think that when I close the book, or when the credits roll, that relationship in which I have invested my emotional energy is plausible enough to continue – that my hero will not pick up his wild bachelor ways again when the novelty of his marriage wears off. That, if you like, he is a sufficiently well-rounded creation to be not only convincingly tormented, but convincingly happy. Not necessarily well-balanced – let’s be honest, none of my lads are entirely wired up right – but real.
Prince Rupert, bless him, never had a loving long-term relationship in his life, apart from possibly with his dog. But there he is in portraits, spaniel-eyed and brooding, the sort of fierce and passionate figure that turns up in popular fiction seething with suppressed emotion, just needing the right woman to set him on the path of happiness.
And then there’s Thomas Fairfax, married to the same woman for almost twenty years (they were married in 1637 and he was buried alongside her in 1657 – her date of death is unknown) in domestic felicity. No arguing Black Tom’s passion and ferocity: he just happened to be a sweetheart at home. With particularly fine eyes. Oliver Cromwell, giving his loving wife Elizabeth what-for for not writing enough letters to him while he was away from home, and sending his love to his little daughters. John Lilburne, and his wife’s continuing ferocious battles to have him released from his various imprisonments, though it cost her her health, her children and her liberty.
But Roundheads are repulsive, right? Dour and humourless and godly and boring, somewhat prone to random acts of zealotry – that’s not romantic, surely.
The thing with Puritan love poetry – though Puritan and Parliamentarian are not, regardless of popular belief, synonymous – is that it is not sexy. There you go, it’s said. If you want unbridled lust, go read the Song of Solomon, it’s full of it. (Godly = boring. Hmm.)
What it is, is loving. And not in a sweet, over-sentimental way. Read the poems of the Puritan poet Ann Bradstreet – “To My Dear and Loving Husband”. Her faith is still there, underpinning her love and, yes, her desire for her husband, but they are a couple: not for her romantic uncertainty, or the agonies of self-doubt. The underlying relationship between husband and wife is rock-solid. Lucy Hutchinson’s Elegies on her husband (and I know, I know, it’s Lucy Hutchinson, and I cannot abide that mewling hagiographer…. but) celebrate a very real marriage between two real people, not a sexually-driven liaison or an idealised Classical fantasy.
Even Fairfax’s poems on the death of his wife express factual, rather than romantic, sentiment. As a good Christian man of his time, he is sure that she has gone on to a better place. As a husband, he misses her physical presence most fiercely. Lady Anne Fairfax was notoriously not beautiful. Her husband, then, celebrates the unbeautiful – praising a lack of beauty as indeed a virtue, where good looks provoke vanity and envy. There was a man who knew what side his bread was buttered on…
“All Creatures else on Earth that are
Whether they Peace affect or War
Males their Females ne’er oppress
By the Lion safe lies the Lioness
The Bears their Mates no harm procure
With Wolf the she-Wolf lies secure
And of the Bull the Earth which tears
The tender Heifer has no fears
But men then these more brutish are
Who with their wives Contend & jar
– Thomas Fairfax
Now, I don’t know about you, but any man who promotes an ideal marriage as a peaceful co-existence between a man and a woman, is all right in my book!
Even the Puritan marriage manuals support the kind of attitudes we’d approve of today. Sexual compatibility and mutual pleasure are a gift from God, and a man and a women who do not take pleasure in each other are not likely to make a happy marriage. I quote the section of Gataker’s Marriage Duties with which my lapsed Puritan boy Hollie proposes to his Het –
“And this is a necessary effect of love. For what a man loveth most, he desireth most; and what he desireth and affecteth most, that he most delighteth in. Which that a man may the better do, he must remember that as every Christian man may assure himself that his present estate, what ever it be, is best & fittest for him: so a Christian married man is bound to believe and to persuade himself, not that his wife is the wisest, or the fairest, or the best conditioned woman in the world; but that she is the fittest wife for him, that God hath allotted him, and therefore rest himself contented in her & satisfied with her, and live with as much alacrity & cheerfulness with her as may be. And as parents love and delight in their children, not because they are fair or wise and witty, but because they are their children & and therefore howsoever seeing better parts in others, they could be content to change quality for quality, yet they will not exchange child for child: so a man is to love & delight in his wife even for this cause because she is his wife, and howsoever it may be he could wish some of her parts bettered, yet to rejoice in her as they are. “
Gataker, and his contemporaries, promoted love and marriage as a responsibility, not a thing to be taken lightly. If you were a married man (or woman – you will note the manual is every bit as specific as to the man’s duties to his wife as the woman’s to her husband) it was not only your pleasure, but a serious undertaking, to make your spouse content. None of this wispy Cavalier flitting about the place idolising assorted females and writing poetry to their underclothing, but a very down-to-earth and practical guidance – the marriage as a microcosm of the wider commonwealth.
You love her. She loves you. Great. That’s marvellous. But the purpose of marriage, as stated in the Book of Genesis, is about companionship – Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Genesis 2:18 – before procreation. Friendship and affection, not lust. Sexual intimacy is a vital part of marriage, but it’s not the be all and end all, because now the hard work starts, building your life together. It’s not about hearts and flowers – it’s about he and she, and building up a rock-solid bulwark of love and faith and joy in each other’s company. It may not always be easy, and it may not always be comfortable, but it is your duty before God and man to keep that love alive.
Love and faith. Oliver Cromwell, writing home from Scotland to ask his Elizabeth to give “his love to the dear little ones; I pray for grace for them. I thank them for their letters: let me have them often.” Thomas Fairfax, prizing virtue above beauty, in a somewhat back-handed compliment to his plain, brown, beloved wife.
Beauty’s a frail & brittle good
Which Sickness Time & Age do blast
The Rose & Lilly in face that bud
Hardly are kept & seldom last
What hath she then to boast on Save
A fragile life & timely grave
Beauty where sweet Graces fail
May be Compared unto this
A goodly ship without her sail
A spring her fragrant flower do miss
A day wants Sun or Torch its Light
A shrine wants Saint or Starless night
But how doth Nature seem to smother
The Virtues of this lonely Flower
Who is of wanton Lust the Mother
Of toying Vanity a Bower
Enemy of Peace the Fount where Pride do swim
Th’ Incendiary of Strife of Passion’s Magazine
What, then, is the more romantic? The gallant poet with a girl (with increasingly far-fetched names, Lucasta) in every garrison, swearing eternal loyalty to the cult of Unattainable Beauty, or the steadfast husband determined that come what may, he must honour both his marriage vows and his duty? No, if you want a real man – not a boy in love with a romantic ideal, but a trustworthy, decent, honourable, loving man – you wouldn’t go far wrong with a romantic Roundhead.
Though to be fair, Babbitt’s Company has got both a gallant poet and a steadfast husband, so no need to make that decision just yet….
But to conclude with a quotation – “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a Gentle-man and is nothing else. “
Thank you, Oliver Cromwell!
By ML Logue