Rules Of Engagement

It was at UCLA in 1974 that I taught my first upperclassman course: a seminar devoted to the novels of Charles Dickens. It was mostly comprised of students who had taken my freshman composition course two years before and were gluttons for punishment. I was never an “Easy-A” teacher; I wasn’t even an “Easy-C” one.

I was delighted watching my former students rediscover Dickens’ marvelous sense of humor and his ability to create more memorable characters than any other novelist. But there was one area of human experience portrayed by Dickens for which my seminar students decided that he deserved a big fat “F”— romantic love. This was the 1970’s — free love and sexual liberation, baby! — and Dickens’ Victorian prudishness in describing his fictional lovers was seen as hopelessly old-fashioned and priggish by my class of twenty-year-olds.

And it was tough to defend my favorite author on this charge. Even Sydney Carton, who literally lost his head over Lucie Manette during the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities, demonstrated not one iota of sexual yearning for his beloved. As one of my students mentioned in a class discussion, “Dickens’ lovers act like they’re in a fairy tale.”

It was at this same time that I had come upon a delightful new setting for grading papers. Rather than taking the rush-hour-clogged freeway home from the campus to my distant apartment, I had discovered a gorgeous public park within walking distance from UCLA. It was in Holmby Hills, as elegant a neighborhood as any in all of Los Angeles, even outclassing Beverly Hills. This park actually had lawn bowling and a pony-riding course! It was the perfect late-afternoon spot for me to read all my student themes and term papers, smiling as I bestowed my rare “A” on an extraordinary one and drowning the truly bad ones in an ocean of my red ink, sending them below “C” level. 

One afternoon, I had just settled myself on a filigreed iron bench beneath a bower of hawthorn and climbing plants, screened from sight. I heard footsteps and then saw a young couple, hand in hand, moving toward the lovely gazebo near the bowling lawn. “Make-out session?” I’m wondering to myself and feeling like a voyeur since they couldn’t see me. From what I remember, they were not an especially handsome couple, yet they were gazing at each other as if he were Lancelot and she Guinevere.

I could not have been more wrong about their purpose. They mounted the one limestone step up to the center of the gazebo and just held each other tightly. Then he unclasped her arms, and as she looked at him, bewildered, he walked back down the step, turned around to face her, knelt on one knee, and reached into his pocket for a little jewelry.

I was witnessing a marriage proposal. Once the ring was on her finger, they kissed countless times — well, OK, eleven times. I’m not only a voyeur but OCD as well. And then she held her left hand up high as she blissfully twirled around the gazebo, gazing in awe at her finger with her new tiny diamond catching the late afternoon sunlight.

I had much time to reflect on that touching scene shortly thereafter, as I drove to my home in Burbank, twenty-seven miles away. Burbank was such an uninteresting suburb of Los Angeles back then that the creators of the TV show “Laugh-In” satirized it as “Beautiful Downtown Burbank.” And it truly was as dull and humdrum as the engagement I had just witnessed in Holmby Hills was lovely and romantic. 

It was then, making slow progress home on the smoggy Ventura Freeway, that I realized how I could defend Dickens’ lovers to my students. Here we were in 1974, more than one hundred years after Dickens had penned his love scenes, and yet most modern young lovers were imitating his fairy-tale heroes and heroines by reenacting the noble knight asking his lady fair for her hand in marriage.

My students may have groaned at Dickens’ chaste love scenes, but I was shocked and delighted when I asked them the next week how many of them found the old-fashioned, bended-knee proposal appealing. In my class of eighteen, all of them — six males and twelve females — admitted to fantasizing about such an event in their lives. I believe that there is something deep within us that reveres friendship, cherishes pets, adores laughter. And it is that same something that holds romantic love sacred.

For those of us lucky enough to have found The One — “on bended knee” or not — we understand why that gesture used in engagements is so similar to the bended knee of religious services, where it symbolizes humility and reverence. In all other usages except engagements and religion, the proper modern spelling is “bent knee”, not “bended.” But we retain the archaic form to emphasize the eternal, humbling awe and gratitude we feel when in the presence of our beloved. Charles Dickens emphasized the purity and sacredness of his fictional couples’ True Love — so why the dickens shouldn’t we continue to revere it today?

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