I remember the moment I fell in love for the first time. He was tall and slim, with piercing grey eyes and a rather hawkish profile. He was apt to get lost in his work at odd times, and was a selective polymath. He was often more courteous to street sweepers than kings, and had, despite a fundamentally misogynistic attitude, a lovely gentleness with women when he chose to exercise it. I was the ripe and discerning age of ten; he is timeless. His name is Sherlock Holmes.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s sardonic sleuth marked the beginning of a lifelong literary love affair with exceptionally intelligent men. I don’t confuse it with intellect, so I’m not talking about professors and academics; I’m certainly not talking about reporters who “solve” cases but do real dumb things (although I have a huge mush spot for Tintin). I’m not even talking about the men with above-average intelligence, the military operatives and entrepreneurial farmers and industrial barons. I’m talking about heroes with bona fide brilliance, the ones who might have their share of looks but whose brains make them super, super hot. These men are dazzling in their virtuosity. They are also frustrating as hell, because their extreme intelligence is often compensated by extreme deficiencies.
The first such hero I encountered was Ian Thornton in Judith McNaught’s Almost Heaven. Ian is a man of extraordinary brilliance, capable of three-second sums and super-speed reading, as well as making his own fortune and organizing his own defence trial. However, when he was sixteen a tiny emotional quirk revealed itself: His entire family died, and to prevent an emotional meltdown he locked away their memory to the point where he literally did not think of them. Being a man of deep feeling and immense willpower, he compensates for any potential emotional wreckage by ensuring there is no wreckage. Fifteen years later he gives his wife, Elizabeth Cameron, the same treatment when he believes she has betrayed him: No one gets a second chance from him, he says. It takes four months of separation and a really good speech by our heroine to unlock his emotions and give her a second chance.
Two hundred and fifty years into the future, I read Naked in Death by J.D. Robb and melted for Roarke. At first glance he seems a psychologically well-balanced individual – romantically happy, financially secure (snort), industrial/technological/athletic whiz, at home equally with presidents as with thieves, and in touch with the finer feelings in life. But subsequent books reveal his uncertainties when it comes to family, which is where his past knocks him for a loop. Roarke needs time to become reconciled to the idea of having family, as well as make a place for living links to his sketchy past. So while he admires his friends’ familial bliss, he still observes with amusement rather than wistfulness, and all his brilliance can’t compensate for what is, essentially, fear. Which means he and Eve ain’t have babies any time soon.
But the one who spoiled all others for me, the ultimate troubled genius, is Francis Crawford of Lymond (Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles). He is the epitome of the Renaissance Man – swordsman, marksman, politician, poet, musician, orator, linguist, lover. He is also very, very screwed up. He hates his mother and fights with his brother. He is recklessly addicted to adrenaline and occasionally suicidal. He is totally self-destructive and is his own worst enemy because his greatest fear is himself. And his presence lights the world like the dawning sun. The woman who marries him is his equal in every way, and the one person who can complete him; that he allows himself to love her, in the end, is a miracle.
Much of the vulnerability these heroes have is emotional, which usually stems from intellectual and thus psychological isolation. Add to that the fact that they’re strong-willed and stubborn, and sparks are guaranteed to fly when they’re paired with the right woman. My childhood hero, Sherlock Holmes, got bored so easily he relied on artificial mental stimulation courtesy of 7% cocaine solutions. However, his new wife, in Laurie R. King’s superlative Mary Russell series, keeps him suitably occupied, and there is no doubt that between the pair of them he’ll get all the stimulation he needs, mental or otherwise.
In the clip from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, Lady Thiang sings her love for a brilliant but immensely difficult man. He is visionary and conservative; he is stubborn, and he is generous; he charms you, and he hurts you. Yul Brynner’s King of Siam is a mass of contradictions, and so it is for most gifted people. After all, nature lives in a constant search for homeostasis and stability – action versus reaction, radioactive versus inert, summer versus winter. But exceptional intelligence comes at a price because no can have it all. And in romance novels, underlying the basic attraction of an exceptional man is the most appealing and romantic thing of all: The knowledge that he will be paired with an equally exceptional woman. Elizabeth Cameron, Eve Dallas, Phillippa Chamberlain, Mary Russell – different women all, and I would be honoured to call each one a friend.
The brilliant man is the ultimate romance fantasy because he is inherently incomplete. He yearns for completion; he longs, however unconsciously or unwillingly, for his other half. In other words, he’s the perfect romance hero.