Practical Romance

G. K. Chesterton speaks of the human need for “practical romance” — a mixture of something strange with something secure. And the key thing is to be held to account for the risks and rewards of the romantic adventure. “If I bet,” he writes, “I must be made to pay, or there is no poetry in betting. If I challenge I must be made to fight, or there is no poetry in challenging. If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful, or there is no fun in vowing. . . . For the purpose even of the wildest romance results must be real; results must be irrevocable.” And marriage, he says, is the ultimate example of a real and irrevocable result.

Too many modern relationships are rather more informal; commitments are desultory. Why? The reasons are manifold. As Leon Kass has written, the so-called sexual revolution has led to an “erosion of shame and awe” with regard to sexuality, with all the familiar consequences: so many abortions, so many unwed parents, so many fatherless children, so many divorces, so much infidelity, so much voyeurism. Restraint is anathema, and with Edmund Burke we may lament that, not only is chivalry dead. Romance is moribund as well:

It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly.

So wrote Burke in 1790.

It may not matter who is to blame for this state of affairs, but ladies and gentlemen are called upon to make things right, although mostly in their own lives, since only there can romance be real and irrevocable. Their efforts may be edified by a very old story.

King Arthur loses a test of skill with a knight near Carlisle, and he will forfeit his life if he fails within the year to answer the knight’s remarkable, proto-Freudian question: What does a woman want? Arthur is stumped; all of Camelot is stumped, and—365 days having passed—as the king rides despondently to meet his fate, he comes upon a hag (called the “loathly lady”) who asks why he is so cheerless. He explains. The ugly old woman laughs her toothless cackle and says, “I can answer the question.” Arthur promises that if she saves him he’ll grant her anything. Her answer — and it’s the correct one — is that what a woman wants most is to have her own way.

The king is delivered, and he couldn’t be happier until he hears the hag’s quid pro quo: She wants to marry a knight of the Round Table.

Now of all the noble knights at Camelot, none was nobler than Sir Gawain, and he steps forward, ready to fulfill the king’s promise to the hag. Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, (for that’s the loathly lady’s name) are married, and on their wedding night, which Gawain has been dreading, she tells him that she is actually a beautiful woman — the most beautiful — and she may appear so half the day. It’s a curse of course. She is transformed before him, and he is indeed stunned by her splendor. So, she says, you must choose: Shall I be lovely during the day and loathly at night; or loathly in the sunshine and lovely in moonlight?

Either because of his inability to decide or because inspiration has broken through to the medieval male mind, Gawain tells Ragnelle that it must be her decision. This is exactly right: the curse is lifted, and she is beautiful always.

I admire Katherine Kersten’s description of ideal manliness from the standpoint of a “conservative feminist.” She will teach her sons that “while strength is good, the strong have a special responsibility to assist and protect the weak and less fortunate.” She will insist that her boys “understand the importance of behaving with honor under all circumstances, achieving self-mastery, and cultivating restraint.”

It’s not for me to comment broadly on women’s goals. I’ll let Mrs. Kersten do that. Her ideal woman is “the architect of her own happiness,” which she finds in her efforts to “fulfill her responsibilities, to cultivate wisdom, to develop her talents, and to pursue excellence in all her endeavors,” and that “no matter how frustrating others’ behavior may be, she refuses to seek solace in a life of rage and self-pity.”

Who better for a gentleman than such a lady, practical and romantic?

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.