Sometimes a book falls into your hands at precisely the moment you need it most. Kate Holden’s The Romantic came up as an auto-fill in the library catalogue when I was ordering another book. I must have searched for it before and forgotten about it, so after I’d collected the book and pedalled home from the library, it was too hot to do anything except lie front of the fan with a glass of Pimm’s, so I opened the covers and began to read.
About eighteen months ago I went to a salon at Avid Reader at which Kate Holden spoke about this book. At the time, I vaguely knew her first memoir, In My Skin, had been successful, though I hadn’t read it. She was a tall, slim woman with a sharp-boned face, cropped dark hair and a wide smile. In My Skin was about her addiction to heroin and subsequent prostitution to finance hers and her boyfriend’s habits. I remember someone asking, ‘How did you eventually get off the drugs?’ and she replied that her body had just had enough, and it told her so.
I didn’t buy The Romantic then because I hadn’t read In my Skin, which I later borrowed from a girl at work and inhaled in one sitting. It was a fantastic, clear-sighted read, and I would review it if I didn’t have 2 piles of books on my desk waiting for their reviews too (and I’ve banned myself from the library until I get through them).
The Romantic is set in Italy, when Kate has got herself off the drugs and gone travelling to sort herself out, as she writes at the beginning, ‘Italy will be a test. It will clarify. It will precipitate … after the years in darkness she wants to become, finally, a woman who is bright and clear’ (Text, p. 5).
She meets new men, sleeps with and experiments with them, and tries to negotiate, I sensed, these relationships as a woman who loves sex rather than a woman working for sex, a puttana. I was fascinated, and irritated, by the way men’s relationships with her altered once she explained her history. Jack says, ‘I thought that might be it. You’re too good [in bed]’ (16), and then peppers her with questions about what it was like. Her flatmate in Rome, once she explains her difficult background, hits on her, and she submits with her usual excuse, ‘what harm will it do?’ (81).
I was aggravated: she hadn’t changed, she was still the same woman, why should she suddenly want to have sex with him just because of her history? Why should it matter who a woman has slept with? Do we care so much when men sleep around? Do we label them as sluts as easily as we do women? Of course we don’t.
What I loved about Holden was her refreshing relish for sex, and her frankness about her liaisons, and about her inability, sometimes, to stand up for herself. I nearly cheered when she wrote:
She will not apologise for being sexual. She will not be demeaned by accusations of promiscuity. She can’t back down from her belief that she is entitled to sex, that her body, flawed as it is, deserves pleasure and admiration. That, indeed, she has pride (84).
And woven through all this is her adoration for the Romantics such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, with their abundant emotion. She gets tired, she says, ‘of people telling me, every time I feel something, that I’m being melodramatic’ (134). At last, I thought, here was a woman after my own mind, who feels things too much, and I was delighted by her friend’s response: ‘Yeah, well, most people don’t feel anything. It’s fucking boring of them’ (134).
This book was a balm because, at a mutual friend’s birthday drinks a few weeks ago, my ex, whom I still missed and was still struggling to get over, walked in with a new girl on his arm. This was despite the fact that we’d had a text conversation that morning in which it was made clear that I’d be there. He promptly sat the girl down before me, on the opposite side of the table, while he spoke to our friend. As my parents have drilled good manners into me to the point where they are instinctive, I carried out a perfectly warm conversation with her, although I was unable to continue when she asked in a clear voice, ‘Does P. have a girlfriend? Someone told me his girlfriend would be here.’ She was answered in the negative by another friend sitting near me. At this point I started shaking, and couldn’t stop for ten minutes, but I also didn’t feel I could leave without making things awkward for our birthday friend. So I bought myself another drink and kept it together.
This incident is but an echo of what Holden has had to endure. I fell apart a little too, when I read of her loving an Italian man, then finding he wasn’t what she imagined, and reading, ‘Soon it will be the afterwards. The terrible alone afterwards … The Gabriele baby will not be born; all the warm water of love has sluiced from her’ (220). She concludes, with a line that made me catch my breath, ‘her heart is gone. She was always trying to give it away’ (233). Yet she still has faith, returning to Rome, where ‘it is August and the air is hotter than the blood of her body’ (237), to the houses of those poets, for whom writing and love were indivisible. I thought, if Kate Holden can get there, after she’s gone through so much, then I can too.
A few days after my friend’s drinks, as I walked to work carrying coffee for my boss, wearing the lightest thing I own to combat the 35 degree day – a short, silk shift with a white slip underneath – I passed a small chalkboard outside another café which has a different quote written on it every day. This time it read: Don’t be sad that it’s over. Be happy that it happened. I nearly spilled the coffee.
For, even though I was appalled by his callousness (not least because it invalidated his reason for dropping me; namely, that he didn’t have time for a relationship), it’s impossible to regret the lamplit evening at Enoteca with him, where I wore my cobalt blue dress with a flower at the waist; how he made me laugh with a line from my novel at 5.45am when he needed to get to the airport and I, most definitely not a morning person, was ill with the effort of waking; how he jokingly bit the pearls around my wrist to see if they were real; the stories he brought back after travelling, which still make me smile; how he stopped me bragging about my University Medal by mentioning he had one himself; the first time he kissed me, beneath an umbrella while rain poured around us. It’s a shame that I should have been treated so shabbily after such delightful encounters, but I guess my Douchebag Detector must have short-circuited. Although lately I’ve been wondering if I even have one installed.
Thankyou, Kate Holden, for showing me that if you fall, and hit cement instead finding of a man’s arms, and you get up and fall in love with another one who won’t hold you either, it doesn’t mean that you’re a stupid girl who feels too much and who won’t learn her lessons. It means that you’re fearless and passionate, and you still believe you have much to give. So, I’m back on my feet and going to dance classes again. With my high heels, a swirling skirt, pink lip gloss and a touch of perfume to my wrist, it seems as good a place as any to find some romance.
Book details: Holden, Kate. The Romantic. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2010.
Borrowed from Brisbane City Council library.
This is a review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.