I’m not a big fan of ‘true story’ dramas. I often find it difficult to lose myself in them because I’m busy wondering which parts are hard fact, which are poetic licence, and what evidence the writers might have excluded because it didn’t fit their narrative.
There’s a minor scene near the beginning of Philomena, one of this year’s Oscar nominees, which I’m pretty sure must have been poetic licence on the part of the writers, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. The movie is based on the true story of Philomena Lee’s search for the son she bore as an unmarried teenage mother in an Irish convent and who was sold by the nuns to a wealthy family in the US. It’s an unlikely ‘buddy’ story that pairs up unsophisticated Philomena with Oxford-educated current affairs journalist Martin Sixsmith.
In the scene, the writers define the educational and social gulf between Philomena and Martin by their choice of reading matter. Martin, who thinks he’s demeaning himself by working on Philomena’s ‘human interest’ story, is reading ‘a weighty tome about Tsar Nicholas’. Philomena has just finished a romantic novel entitled The Slipper And The Horseshoe, which she has very much enjoyed. She insists on giving a blow-by-blow account of the plot, which is made to sound utterly formulaic. Eventually she reaches the inevitable HEA, saying “Well, I didn’t see that coming, Martin, not in a million years.”
The script is pretty even-handed, having a good swipe at Martin’s intellectual snobbery as well as Philomena’s simple enjoyment of genre fiction, and that line got one of the biggest laughs of the night, but for me it was the moment the writers went for a cheap win and switched my expectations from ‘enhanced documentary’ to ‘entertaining tear-jerker constructed around a few solid facts.’ The only non-negotiable in a romance is the ending, so unless Philomena has never read a historical before, this bit of dialogue is a howler, right up there with Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood disembarking at Dover and riding to Nottingham in an afternoon.
That said, it did get me thinking about what makes a good romance.
I think The Slipper And The Horseshoe must be the creation of Coogan and Pope (I googled it and got no other results). The hero is a self-made son of a doctor who has to decide between marrying a Duchess who doesn’t love him and a penniless stable girl who does. Huh. See what I mean about ‘I didn’t see that one coming?’
In the movie this book sounds like a stinker, and in the wrong hands it would be, but in the right ones I’d give it a go. Story is character in conflict. Character is choice under pressure. Lots of good stuff to play with in this set-up.
It has a male protagonist, which is a relatively recent phenomenon and one I like a lot. He’s the self-made son of a doctor, which in a historical is a lot more interesting than making him a Duke. He sounds a bit like somebody Courtney Milan might write about – a product of brains, hard work, and a changing social climate. With the right world and back-story he could be fascinating. I wonder why he wants to marry the Duchess? I bet it’s not just because he wants to be Lord of the Manor.
Similarly with the Duchess, who we’re told is marrying the hero to spite the man she really wants. Even in a world of changing expectations I’m guessing it would be pretty scandalous for a Duchess to marry one of the new middle-class sorts, so this Duchess sounds interesting. Has she chosen the hero to shock society, or is there some other issue that makes the hero extra-infuriating to the man she really wants?
I’m curious about the stable-girl too. My history isn’t especially strong, but I thought girls in domestic service would normally be in the house, not the stables. So the heroine also has an unusual skill-set and back-story. Maybe she’s even a girl pretending to be a boy, because she’s a genius with horses and terrible with a feather duster. She may be broke, but she’s clearly not stupid, helpless or waiting for a man to rescue her. I like her.
So in making a joke about genre romance, the writers of Philomena missed the point. The ending is a given, but the journey is everything, and in the hands of an intelligent writer it’s pure joy to read. It’s about committing to the characters, and enjoying the way they behave under pressure. Get talking to any romance reader and they’ll probably talk about the characters they love – Darcy and Elizabeth, Barrons and Mac, Davy and Tilda, Vidal and Mary.
Do you have a favorite book? Do you know why you love it?
Oh – and romance carping aside, I really enjoyed Philomena. Check out the script here. Or go see the movie.