Happy Valentine’s Day! Cynicism about this holiday has become common, and many see February 14 as just another excuse to empty the pockets of consumers, who will spend more than $16 billion on cards, flowers, chocolates, and other gifts. I’m still enough of a romantic to find the day a charming tradition. Ever since I read a particular romance novel a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about osculation in fiction. What better day to consider kisses than a holiday that celebrates love and lovers?
A kiss, of course, can mean many things from simple affection to bitter betrayal, but it is the romantic/erotic kiss that most fascinates. The ancients believed that in mouth-to-mouth kisses, lovers exchanged the breath of life and mingled souls. The Roman poet Catullus (84BC?- 54BC) inspired poets such as Robert Herrick, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Lord Byron with his explicit demand: “Kiss me now a thousand times and still a hundred more and then a hundred and a thousand more again till with so many hundred thousand kisses you and I lose count.” Herrick’s “To Anthea (III)” utilizes Catullus’s math and adds a challenge:
Give me a kiss, and to that kiss a score;
Then to that twenty add a hundred more:
A thousand to that hundred: so kiss on,
To make that thousand up a million.
Treble that million, and when that is done
Let’s kiss afresh, as when we first begun.
Poets are not the only artists who find material in kisses. Rodin’s Kiss sculpture, inspired by Paolo and Francesca, the eternally entwined lovers in circle 2 of Dante’s Inferno, still attracts visitors to the Tate Gallery in London, and photographs of kissing couples in Paris and Times Square are internationally famous. Movie kisses have come in for their fair share of attention as well. Googling “best movie kisses” yields more than 8 million results, and “favorite movie kisses” is a favorite topic among romance fiction bloggers. My favorites are from older movies such as those between Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life and between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man. Viewing several movie versions of Pride and Prejudice consecutively makes one aware of the distance between Jane Austen’s discreet description (“He [Darcy] expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man in violent love can be supposed to.) and the eight minutes of moonlit lip locks added to the U.S. version of the 2005 Keira Knightley/Matthew MacFadyen film.
I thought the kisses exchanged by Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty were pretty hot when I first saw Splendor in the Grass in 1961, but I didn’t know then that the first screen French kiss in that movie would lead to increasingly sensual screen kisses to the point that such scenes today sometimes seem to be about voyeurism than about romance. But then scholars tell us that the kisses art gives us are voyeuristic. Social convention leads us to avert our eyes from the intimacy if we happen to see a couple kissing in real life, but art encourages us to gaze at the osculatory exchange that can express both physical and emotional intimacy.
This is no less true of fiction than of the visual arts. Long before the no-holds-barred sex that can be found in both popular and literary fiction, the kiss was used as a metaphor for orgasm. In Portrait of a Lady, in a scene written from his heroine’s point of view, Henry James wrote: “His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again . . . his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession.” In June 2008, The Guardian published a list of ten of the best literary kisses. They ranged from the kiss shortly after first meeting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the invasive kiss endured by an unwilling bride in Ian McEwan’s 2007 novel On Chesil Beach.
I maintain that those who draw up lists of the best fictional kisses do a disservice to their audience by ignoring the kissing scenes in romance fiction. No other writers possess the awareness of all that a kiss can express that the authors of the best in romance fiction can claim. Here are my candidates for ten of the best kisses in Romancelandia (listed chronologically by publication date):
1. Derek kisses Sara in the garden
Dreaming of You (1994), Lisa Kleypas
The I’m-not-good-enough-but-I-can’t resist-her kiss:
Without meaning to, he reached her in three strides and snatched her in his arms. Her joyous laugh tickled his ear as he lifted her off his feet. Urgently his mouth roved across her face with rough kisses that stung her cheek, her chin, her forehead.
2. Jessica kisses Dain in the rain
Lord of Scoundrels (1995), Loretta Chase
The hero-as-helpless-and-needy kiss:
He melted under that maidenly ardor as though it were rain and he a pillar of salt.
He stood, helpless in the driving rain, unable to rule his needy mouth, his restless hands, while, within, his heart beat out the mortifying truth.
Ho bisogno di ti.
I need you.
3. Catherine kisses Michael after eight pages leading to consummation scene
Shattered Rainbows (1996), Mary Jo Putney
The post-coital-bliss kiss:
She gave him a kiss of aching sweetness, the silken fall of her hair gliding across his throat.
4. Anna yields to Cam’s kiss
Sea Swept (2001), Nora Roberts
The I-know-it’s-bad-for-me-but kiss:
She gave into it, gave all to it, a moment’s madness where body ruled mind and blood roared over reason.
5. Colin finally kisses Penelope 200+ pages into the novel
Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (2002), Julia Quinn
The I-thought-it-would-never-happen kiss:
He leaned forward and kissed her, slowly, reverently, no longer quite so surprised that this was happening, that he wanted her so badly.
6. Diana and Rothgar share what they believe will be their last kiss
Devilish (2005), Jo Beverley
The we-can-never-be-together kiss:
Then she put her lips to his and asked for their familiar kiss. She was mistress of the art and he was her equal. It was long, and as satisfying as a favorite meal.
7. Sydnam kisses Anne after the two have become totally vulnerable to each other
Simply Love (2007), Mary Balogh
The tenderness-in-the-afterglow kiss:
“He kissed her temple and made sure the blanket was tucked all about her. He warmed her body with his own.”
8. Villiers gives Eleanor a promising—and public—kiss
A Duke of Her Own (2009), Eloisa James
The I-promise-you-there’s-more kiss:
He took her hand. Then without smiling at her, without saying a word, without doing anything other than meeting her eyes, he slowly peeled off her glove. It was utterly surprising—and scandalous.
Villiers’s kiss was slow and deliberate, giving everyone in the tent more than enough time to enjoy the spectacle.
9. Julian and Lily share a first kiss
Three Nights with a Scoundrel (2010), Tessa Dare
The this-is-the-real-us kiss:
Because in that moment, neither of them moved. Neither of them breathed. They just . . . existed together. The tension melted away. And the kiss was still artless, still desperate—but only because it was real. The most honest, truthful moment they’d ever shared.
10. Moncrieffe kisses Genevieve and finds himself in an unexpected role
What I Did for a Duke (2011), Julie Anne Long
The I-got-more-than-I-bargained-for kiss:
He hadn’t counted on a third option. Stealthily as a liqueur or an excellent drug, in much the same way she’d been doing for days now, Genevieve Eversea—her heat, her scent, her generosity and kindness, her devastating sensuality, entered his bloodstream. Beneath his hand, the lush, lithe give of her body just barely brushing against his chest, the hum of that passion she kept so tamped, burned through him. The invader becoming the invaded—that was the third option. He was hers now.
What are your favorite kisses in visual art forms? In fiction, literary or genre?
I owed a debt to the following article for information on the history of kisses: Blue, Adrianne. “The Truth about Smooching.” The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec), August 17, 1996, Saturday, FINAL EDITION, EDITORIAL / OP-ED; p. B6.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.