Female vs. Male Authors on What to Look for in a Potential Spouse

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 18 January, 2016

From an article in The New Yorker by Adelle Waldman:

attention to a lover’s intelligence—and to those facets of character that fall under the auspices of intelligence and factor into respect, such as fairness, integrity, magnanimity, and sensitivity—is consistent with the way women novelists have long written about love. For as long as novels have been written, heroines in books by women have studied their beloveds’ minds with a methodical, dispassionate eye. The ideal mate, for Jane Austen’s heroines, for Charlotte Brontë’s, for George Eliot’s, is someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality.

A link between love and respect hardly seems like a unique or daring proposition—until we consider that so many male authors have tended to think about love very differently. Straight male authors devote far less energy to considering the intelligence of their heroes’ female love interests; instead, they tend to emphasize visceral attraction and feelings. From Tolstoy, whose psychological acuity helped to redefine what the novel is capable of, to unabashed chroniclers of sex like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth to contemporary, stroller-pushing, egalitarian dad Karl Ove Knausgaard, men have been, in a sense, the real romantics: they are far more likely than women to portray love as something mysterious and irrational, impervious to explanation, tied more to physical qualities and broad personal appeal than to a belief—or hope—in having found an intellectual peer.

In literature, the desire to find an equal, and the belief that love in its ideal form should comprise a meeting of minds as well as bodies, appears to be a much greater psychological driver for women than it is for men. [...]

Intelligence matters to these heroines because they crave, above almost everything else, conversation, the kind that requires mutual understanding. [...] Austen’s sensitive, intelligent heroines reflexively seek out as love interests those few men who are equally sensitive and equally intelligent, who are capable of meeting them “in conversation, both rational and playful.”

This kind of relationship is my favourite to read about and I can find examples of such relationships in modern romance novels. However, I wouldn't say it's the dominant type of relationship in romances, despite the fact that the majority are written by women.

That makes me wonder if the distinction between male and female authors identified by Waldman is not an absolute one, but has something to do with the fact, acknowledged by Waldman, that the male protagonists in the novels she discusses are intellectuals and traditionally "men may not have expected to find a true intellectual equal in a woman, and so they looked for intellectual companionship among men, and with women sought those qualities they did expect to find—beauty, charm, sex appeal, domestic skill".

Perhaps novelists (both male and female) who aren't writing about intellectuals may all place less emphasis on intellectual compatibility and more on the physical and/or practical aspects of relationships?


With thanks to Vassiliki for the link to "The Ideal Marriage, According to Novels" (The New Yorker, January 15, 2016) by Adelle Waldman.

Eric Selinger (not verified)

Wednesday, 20 January, 2016

Thanks for posting this, Laura! I get The New Yorker, but don't always read it; this looks like an interesting piece, although it does strike me as the kind of argument that's easily skewed by selection bias.  

Two things do jump out at me from the passages you've quoted. First, as Pam Regis has argued (and I'm sure many others as well), the focus on character in women's fiction from the 19th century makes a lot of practical sense, given the risks to life and limb and psychological well-being they would face in marriage. The history of male love-discourse includes a lot of writing about love outside of marriage, and indeed outside of any sort of "relationship"--thinking here of Dante, of Renaissance love lyrics, etc.  So there are two quite different traditions stemming from the difference in material conditions of love.  (Goodness! I sound positively Marxist!)

The other thing that jumped out, however, was a point of intersection between male and female authors: the idea of "conversation." When I hear the word "conversation" in regards to love, I think immediately of Milton: not the Milton of Paradise Lost, though, so much as the Milton of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. "And what his chiefe end was of creating woman to be joynd with man, his own instituting words declare, and are infallible to informe us what is mariage, and what is no mariage: unlesse we can think them set there to no purpose: It is not good, saith he, that man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him. From which words so plain, lesse cannot be concluded, nor is by any learned Interpreter, then that in Gods intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of mariage: for we find here no expression so necessarily implying carnall knowledge, as this prevention of lonelines to the mind and spirit of man." And, of course, this famous passage:

"First we know St. Paul saith, It is better to marry then to burn. Mariage therfore was giv'n as a remedy of that trouble: but what might this burning mean? Certainly not the meer motion of carnall lust, not the meer goad of a sensitive desire; God does not principally take care for such cattell. What is it then but that desire which God put into Adam in Paradise before he knew the sin of incontinence; that desire which God saw it was not good that man should be left alone to burn in; the desire and longing to put off an unkindly solitarines by uniting another body, but not without a fit soule to his in the cheerfull society of wedlock. Which if it were so needfull before the fall, when man was much more perfect in himselfe, how much more is it needfull now against all the sorrows and casualties of this life to have an intimate and speaking help, a ready and reviving associate in marriage; wherof who misses by chancing on a mute and spiritles mate, remains more alone then before, and in a burning lesse to be contain'd then that which is fleshly and more to be consider'd; as being more deeply rooted even in the faultles innocence of nature. As for that other burning, which is but as it were the venom of a lusty and over-abounding concoction, strict life and labour, with the abatement of a full diet may keep that low and obedient enough: but this pure and more inbred desire of joyning to it selfe in conjugall fellowship a fit conversing soul (which desire is properly call'd love) is stronger then death, as the spouse of Christ thought, many waters cannot quench it, neither can the floods drown it. This is that rationall burning that mariage is to remedy, not to be allay'd with fasting, nor with any penance to be subdu'd, which how can he asswage who by mis-hap hath met the most unmeetest and unsutable mind?"

I first encountered these passages in Stanley Cavell's book on Hollywood comedies of remarriage, Pursuits of Happiness; they could be useful in discussing some (though not all) popular romance novels as well.


Wednesday, 20 January, 2016

Thanks for those passages, Eric! It occurs to me that one could quote Milton to support El, from Just Love: Romance Novel Reviews, who recently argued that:

Asexual romances are necessary. In fact, they’re essential to maintain the balance in romance genre.

No, wait, hear me out. You’re thinking, “But I don’t want to read a book about two friends who don’t do anything for 250 pages. That sounds boring!”

But not only does that thought process slight the asexual community…


"in Gods intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of mariage: for we find here no expression so necessarily implying carnall knowledge, as this prevention of lonelines to the mind and spirit of man."

Eric Selinger (not verified)

Thursday, 21 January, 2016

That's a fascinating connection, Laura!  And I have to say, when I've mentioned that there was such a thing as an "asexual romance," my students got very interested, as though they found the sexual emphasis in many romance novels to be a substitute or shorthand for the developing love story that they wanted to see explored in more "conversational" ways.  I know that Alex Beecroft identifies both as an asexual person and as a Christian, and she's talked about trying in her own work, now, to offer "the combination of an asexual, queer positive gaze with Christianity" (http://www.artsillustrated.com/alex-beecroft-writer.) I look forward to seeing what she does.

I'm going to keep a hold of her comments about her Christianity in her novels (which aren't, of course, strictly speaking "inspirational" romances). As you know, it's a topic that's of interest to me at the moment. Thanks!