By David Flin
There’s not a lot of romance in much Alternate History. Sometimes there is sex, but no-one would confuse the two. It’s odd that there isn’t much romance, given how much time and effort and worry human beings devote to the subject. It was the same in Science Fiction for a long period from the 1950s to the 1980s, where romance got in the way of the plot.
And yet, regardless of the period of recorded history being considered, the whole subject of romance is of vital concern for most people. Much of culture tends to be devoted to the subject, in one form or another. Poetry, art, literature, theatre, all of these are dominated by the subject.
The Greek philosopher Plato argued that the highest form of love was a non-sexual, non-romantic attachment, platonic “brotherly” love. He reasoned that since passion and romance often makes us do ridiculous things, it was a blight on society, and that passionless love was the height of virtuous human experience. To which I can only say that, in this regard, Plato was an idiot, and, more importantly, would have deprived the world of a great driving force for writing stories. Honestly, the stomach-churning tension of that first date, the uncertainty as you find out about each other, the realisation that when they smile, the whole world feels that much brighter and better. Scary? Sure. Prone to disaster? Absolutely. Could we live without it? Not a hope. Without it, there’s no living, merely existence.
When it comes to story-telling timelines, romance provides a gold-mine of possible plot developments. The emotional investment people put into a relationship, obsessing over the progress or the lack of progress, worrying about the different possible outcomes, worrying about potential competition, worrying about their own suitability for the other. And that is just the reactions from the readers. The characters tend to have stronger views.
However, it does require personality in the involved characters. The cardboard cut-out two-dimensional characters one sees in a depressingly large numbers in mainstream fiction aren’t suitable for romance, because romance is the interaction of personalities. Without personalities, there can be no romance.
However, the writing of romance is, like any other facet of human behaviour, just a matter of good writing. As far as Alternate History is concerned, what is interesting is not how to write romance, but how different romantic attachments might have changed history. For example, the strong affection between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert is well known, and this led to Victoria’s extended period of mourning following his death. Alternate History is all about asking the question: “What if?”, and the obvious development here is: What if Queen Victoria didn’t have such a deep attachment to Prince Albert, and remarried after a more normal period of mourning, possibly to someone with whom she did have a deep attachment to? There are a number of potential consequences. In OTL, the Queen blamed the Prince of Wales in part for the death of Prince Albert. Less attachment means that it is possible that this rift will not arise, which could in turn lead to Edward being allowed to pursue an active career in the British Army. This could, in turn, lead to him not marrying Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and so the possibilities continue.
In the other direction, one can posit the question: What if Admiral Nelson and his wife Frances remained devoted to each other. To be sure, Frances always remained devoted to Horatio, but the reverse was not the case, as his affair with Lady Hamilton demonstrated. Many of Nelson’s contemporaries assumed that his marriage to Frances would rob him of his energy and instinct for naval matters, and that he would become an average officer. She was certainly concerned that he ran too great a personal risk in battles, and begged him, once he had made Rear-Admiral, to leave the fighting to his captains. What if he had agreed, and the Royal Navy lost its most famous Admiral during the Napoleonic Wars, not to battle, but to a loss of spirit because of love?
There’s a whole genre of, and I’m using the word advisedly here, literature devoted to romance. They sell reasonably well, and they have certain ideas about what romance involves. The plausibility of some of the stories may leave something to be desired, and I am in no way embittered by the fact that the utterly true story of how I met, fell in love with, and married was rejected on the basis of being too implausible for Mills & Boon. However, that rejection has made me determined that, at some stage, I shall write a timeline in which the basic truths of the genre of romantic novels are totally, 100%, absolutely the bedrock of reality in every respect.
But then, like all myth-tery writers, I know where the bodice is buried.