Passing Time

Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

Unsurprisingly, I don’t currently have much patience or attention span for close readings. However, because this blog brings me joy and distraction, I didn’t want to stop posting. So the solution I have for the moment is to share a few short posts with quotes from 3-4 novels around a single theme.

The theme of today’s post is passing time: something we’re all doing right now in unexpected ways. Days seem like months, February was possibly six years ago, and we’re all waiting for changes in our circumstance without a fixed deadline. And for those of us who still have the attention span, reading romance offers a way to pass some of this weird, distorted time.

As I read, I’ve been on the lookout for the ways that romance novels narratively express the passage of time. And I’ve found that, unsurprisingly, some of the best examples come from novels where time passing is central to the plot or character conflict: from a discussion of pastimes versus work, to an age-gap romance, to a historical “we’ve only got a month to make an heir!” plot, here are three of my favorites.

A Lady Awakened

Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened is about a very specific kind of time pressure: Martha’s husband has just died, and she needs conceive a child that can plausibly be counted as her late husband’s legitimate heir. Enter Theo, who agrees to spend the next month trying to make this happen. The only problem? For Martha, their arrangement is strictly business, and she has no plans to enjoy the baby-making. Theo, on the other hand, would prefer not to sleep with someone who visibly refuses to enjoy herself.

Every delightfully, hilariously stilted this-is-just-about-the-heir encounter between Theo and Martha takes place on the clock, counting the days until it will be too late. Which is why it’s all the more ingenious when the first breakthrough Theo makes in tempting Martha to enjoy herself includes on-the-clock-kissing:

“Allow me ten minutes.” He reached past her to set the watch on the tabletop. “I’ll stop the very second you tell me it’s time.”

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

Martha, never easily deterred, reverts to her favorite deflecting tactic: turning pleasure into a negotiation over time spent kissing:

“Five minutes,” she said.
Haggling. He could do that. “Seven.” He flexed his fingers on the chair.
“Six.” One small crease appeared in her forehead.
“Seven and a half.” He breathed the words next to her ear.
Her eyes snapped open, all coffee-colored impatience. “You’re supposed to go lower, to meet me. Six and a half, you should say.”
“Eight, he murmured into her shoulder. “And I’ll go lower, to meet you, any time you like.”

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

Theo is ready to show Martha that the time they spend together – even when limited – can be about her pleasure, and not just about solving problems.

Eight minutes it was, then. He kissed her, and kissed and kissed and kissed her until he knew that narrow path of skin, and the knobbly scaffolding underneath, the way he knew the lines on his own palm.

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

What I love about the passage is that even though Theo’s plan of timing their kiss works, the two of them are still operating on different scales of time:

Someone was breathing harder. He was. He did that. And someone was breathing more softly, the slow, languid breaths of a person half-drugged. He glanced up at her reflection and a jagged bolt of desire shot through him.

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

The words in the passage match the cadence of their breath. Short utterances like gasps (“Someone was breathing harder. He was. He did that”) and longer, more drawn-out ones (“And someone was breathing more softly, the slow, languid breaths of a person half-drugged.”). This is a slow burn romance, and it takes Martha and Theo a while to get past their imposed and opposing time frames. They do, however, figure out that time together is just as well spent in pleasure as in… production.

For Real

Alexis Hall’s For Real is an age-gap romance between Laurie, an older, experienced sub, and Toby, a young and inexperienced dom. Their relationship is about much more than these disparities in age and experience, but all the same, temporal differences are woven throughout the novel. Laurie narrates in first-person past, Toby in first-person present, and the gaps in their relationship to time loom large in many of their conflicts.

This novel subtly compares the experience of time across different romantic relationships. In this first passage, Laurie remembers kissing Robert, his first love and a man his own age.

Three days, thirteen hours, and twenty-two minutes after we first met, he put his arms around me, pressed our bodies together, and kissed me.

Alexis Hall, For Real

This careful counting of time immediately reminded me of the (much missed) TV show Pushing Daisies, casting a kind of fairytale glow over the past of that first kiss. It also shows two lovers so temporally in sync they can count the minutes between them – whereas Laurie can’t stop worrying about the years that separate him and Toby, and about how much more significant those years would feel further into their seemingly-impossible future.

Perhaps this is why so much about Toby and Laurie’s relationship revolves around reconfiguring their relationship to time passing. Their first encounters are full of little temporal distortions, particularly moments where a short amount of time seems to take ages:

His hands come up and frame my face.
Kiss me, is what I think.
Forever limps by.
“What do you want, Toby?”

Alexis Hall, For Real

After a silence that contained the rise and fall of at least six or seven civilisations, he nodded.

Alexis Hall, For Real

As their relationship progresses, one of the most important changes Laurie makes is to stop measuring time in terms of the age gap between himself and Toby. Instead, he starts measuring time in terms of days and weeks spent with, and without, the man he loves.

I had barely known him, but – as the days slipped into weeks – I realised I missed him too.

Alexis Hall, For Real

I’d been living my life as if nothing had changed. But the promise of Toby had illuminated all my days, edging them with gold like the calligraphy of medieval monks.

Alexis Hall, For Real

Toby and Laurie’s relationship is, in a lot of ways, about finding new means to understand closeness, realizing which kinds of temporal gaps between them have meaning, and which don’t.

A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

Olivia Waite’s A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is both a swoony romance between astronomer Lucy Muchelney and embroiderer Catherine St Day, and a thoughtful look at women’s work. It’s especially invested in looking at how patriarchy shapes the distinctions we draw between “pastimes” and “work.”

One of the first things we learn about Catherine’s embroidery is how her late husband misunderstood the relationship between her craft and the passage of time:

It had taken her weeks aboard ship to embroider this panel. Red and pink and green shading into one another, silks shimmering against their linen background. She’d lost herself in the creation, putting in stitch after stitch, the threads a way of marking time in what had felt like an endless, eventless journey.
Just playing about with fripperies, George had always muttered when he barged into her parlor to demand her help with the latest matter of scientific urgency. An acceptable way to pass the time until there was real work to be done.

Olivia Waite, A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

Catherine uses embroidery to mark time passed stuck on a boat while her husband pursues his career. Her craft is quite literally a means to take control over a patriarchal system that assumes time can only be worthily spent in service of a man making money. Her husband can neither see the importance of a woman exerting control over her own time, nor the possible value of work outside of capitalist ends. To him, “passing time” is the opposite of both “value” and “work.”

Which is why this next passage, showing how Catherine thinks about time while falling in love with Lucy, is so powerful.

Catherine wanted Lucy, but more than that, Catherine wanted Lucy to want her back. And Lucy wouldn’t, if she were still pining for the girl she’d lost. So Catherine let the days flow by like water while she put in stitch after stitch after stitch, as though each one were mending a small rent in Lucy Muchelney’s heart.

Olivia Waite, A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

The phrase “stitch after stitch” that echoes in both passages is a particularly elegant way to make the comparison. It shows that given the right conditions, “pastimes” can do important emotional, affective work.

I do wonder if romance novels are adept at reimagining the passage of time in part because of how the time we spend reading the genre is looked at – and looked down on – by non-romance readers. The idea of romance as an idle time-filler, or somehow as less productive than other kinds of reading, ignores exactly how much good it can do to pass time in enjoyment. So, if you’re finding yourself able to still read romance right now, I hope it’s bringing you a bit of relief from the otherwise-disorienting way the days and weeks are passing right now. And if not, you’ll certainly get back to it – it’s only a matter of time.

2 thoughts on “Passing Time

  1. I love this, and I love the idea of reading romance as a kind of anti-capitalist protest or pushback against the mentality that demands we sspend every moment of every day *producing* something. It’s coming out so clearly in the chirpy calls to take up an instrument or a new language as we self-isolate, calls that ignore how scary and traumatic living through a pandemic can be. Reading in general, but reading romance in particular, feels a good way to refuse those demands.

    Liked by 1 person

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