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Sex, adventure, places, writing - these are the ingredients of romance. Not for English men, though. From Lord Byron to Nick Drake, the great English Romantic has been an effete, narcissistic poseur, neutered by his own blankness
What do you expect from Romance? The sweep of a cloak, the sound of hooves, the lap of waves against a gondola, the spiral of smoke from blown-out candles, the first kiss in a shadowed hallway... Just don't expect it from Englishmen. For the concept of "romantic" has long taken root in the English soul as being little to do with tender passions.

"Romance" has several meanings: the major connotation is of course "a happy but short-lived affair". Other connotations are "a spirit of or inclination for adventure, excitement or mystery", and "a mysterious, exciting, sentimental or nostalgic quality associated with a place"; and lastly, "literary narratives that deal with events and characters remote from ordinary life".

So that's romance: sex, adventure, places and writing. The trouble with Romantic Englishmen is that they take too literally the second, third and fourth, and tend to downgrade the first. They'd rather get into scrapes, travel, write and move on than behave like eligible partners. From Lord Byron to Bruce Chatwin, the line exhibits consistent but puzzling characteristics. There seem to be five main characteristics of the Romantic Englishman: he went to a good school, he has unruly hair, he writes a bit, he is always in transit, and some people think he's homosexual.

Take his most recent embodiments, Joe Fiennes and Richard E Grant. Both actors emote spectacularly; they're all eyes and mouth. Mr Grant, playing the Scarlet Pimpernel, did his habitual mad gleam and sharky grin. Mr Fiennes, playing Will Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love, does the brimming pools and open-mouthed astonishment that are his joint trademark. But as men of action, they both leave much to be desired.

Watching Fiennes scampering through Elizabethan London, asleep at his desk or supine in the theatre circle, you feel you're watching a spindly, art-shop marionette, a perplexed Giacometti sculpture come to life. Grant, as Sir Percy Blakeney, metamorphoses from a foppish, lorgnette-twirling court popinjay to a dashing, Paris-bound, blade-twirling Zorro of the Tuileries; but he doesn't quite make it. Confronted by Chauvelin's secret police, he does a lot of prancing about, shouting "Take that, you brute", and engaging in fisticuffs, but always suggesting he'd be happier in the gym at Harrow, giving his fag a gentlemanly drubbing.

Of course, the parts they're playing are writers. Shakespeare is a world- class stealer of other people's ideas for his plays, and the Pimpernel is a sub-Oscar epigrammatist and composer of "They seek him here" doggerel. Writing is mandatory for Romantic Englishman. For English sensibilities, there's no romance without composition and, preferably, publication - love as Dedication and Acknowledgements. "If you read a lot of travel books," a woman friend told me, wistfully, "you'd be surprised how many acknowledgements there are to women `in whose house I spent a profitable three months', after which, presumably, the author took his manuscript, his conversation and his attenuated passion off to another house and another Muse." In the real "Romance" countries, the language of wooing and seduction is urgent, rhetorical and personal; for the Romantic Englishman, it's tentative, measured and probably about the mating habits of the Hopi tribespeople.

Public schools, travel and writing seem an inescapable troika of requirements for the Romantic Englishman. Start with Byron, who went to Harrow, and Shelley (Eton), and you're pitched in a maelstrom of sexual irregularity, restless travelling through Europe and precocious literary activity. In more recent times, the restlessly-travelling British dreamboat has rarely been to a secondary-modern in Streatham: Bruce Chatwin went to Marlborough, Colin Thubron went to Eton, as did Robin Hanbury-Tenison and Mark McCrum, while Willie Dalrymple went to Ampleforth. Looking at the places they inspect - Dalrymple went to India, McCrum to South Africa, Australia and Ireland - they seem like the grandsons of empire, casting a puzzled eye over what had become of the former colonies and dominions.

Or they become expatriate exotics. Two of the most glamorous Englishmen I've ever met, William Riviere and James Hamilton-Paterson, both travellers and writers, lived in the foothills of Umbria, each by himself; they rarely met. Hamilton-Paterson existed without electricity or plumbed-in water, wrote the brilliant Gerontius in six weeks and spent half of each year among the pirates of the Philippines; Riviere lived less frugally, wrote exquisitely impressionistic novels, affected a walking cane and a hat and entertained friends in London, at the Travellers Club.

Romantic Englishmen have always got to be elsewhere. Their watchword, whether they know the song or not, is "I'm the type of boy who is always on the road/ Wherever I lay my hat, that's my home". In America you get Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, travelling and writing prose as an expression of macho individuality; for Englishmen, it's leaving home in order to bring the world back.

It's extraordinary how many exponents of the genre write books about their RE predecessors. Thus Charles Nicholl, intrepid adventurer of The Fruit Palace, wrote about the life and death of Christopher Marlowe, a classically dangerous, restless, sexually dubious RE. Thus Patrick French, the camp, jellaba-clad biographer of Frances Younghusband, the Victorian explorer, soldier, mystic and lover. Robert McCrum, the publisher, Observer literary editor and elder brother of Mark, wrote a novel called The Romantic Englishman in a triumphant feat of self-identification. Nicholas Shakespeare, who grew up in Peru as a diplomat's son, went to Winchester and has only recently returned from a long trek in India, is shortly to bring out a biography of Bruce Chatwin, the doyen of travellers, forever bounding across the globe from Patagonia to the Sahara, collecting exotic and jewelled objets while gradually turning himself into one. For the women (and men) in his life Chatwin was unpinnable in a way that's typical of the RE; you could have him for a while, like a beautiful possession, but sooner or later you had to relinquish possession to someone else.

Travel writers apart, you can find the Romantic Englishman popping up in the music world. Nick Drake, who killed himself aged 26, was a sad- eyed, Shelleyan, Marlborough-educated visionary with a deep, melodic English singing line. It was assumed that he never had an emotional relationship with anyone, but the girls are starting to come out of the woodwork. A (female) singer-songwriter called Robin Frederick writes, in this month's Mojo, about how "Nick would appear at odd hours of the night at my flat. I'd let him in and we'd pass the time playing songs for each other. He stared at the wall, or the floor, or into the fire. Falling in love with Nick was a no-brainer, and I promptly did. He was extraordinarily attractive and that, plus his natural quietness, made it easy to weave a web of fantasies around him".

Ms Frederick has put her finger on something here: the damned elusiveness of the Romantic Englishman and the central blankness into which would-be attachments can pour their desires.

Drake's depression has been attributed by some to his latent homosexuality, another recurring element in the RE profile. Confusingly, for the women in their lives, many Romantic Englishmen are quite amazingly effete. Baroness Orczy, author of the Pimpernel stories, took one look at the Anglo-Hungarian Leslie Howard and decided he was just too limp-wristed to play Sir Percy. Elyot Chase, the romantic lead in Noel Coward's Private Lives, and a byword in male sophistication, woos his ex-wife back from her new husband by the rhetoric of love, but is not above saying: "If [your husband] comes near me, I'll scream the place down." Female fans of Colin Thubron have gazed at his thrilling physiognomy, as their forbears once gazed at Rupert Brooke's, and sadly concluded he must be gay (wrong in both cases). Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, a Romantic Englishman to millions of both sexes, can come across as the hard-as-nails, two-fisted roughneck one moment, and the next become the figure who used to wear Anita Pallenberg's silk blouses, and recently fell off a ladder while languidly reaching for a volume of Leonardo prints.

It's very confusing. But the word "effete" comes from the Latin ex foetus, and means "exhausted by childbirth", or by creativity. So if you're the kind of chap who writes, composes and turns himself into an object of loveliness, a little camp exhaustion is only to be expected. After spending the 19th century building an empire, establishing trade links with the far world, industrialising the nation and fighting the Russians, you could forgive the English for wanting, as the pinnacle of their ambitions, some quiet, reflective episodes in exotic locations.

There's something classically narcissistic about the Romantic Englishman. He doesn't need women, though he likes their company. He doesn't want to be detained by their desires. He is happier being on the move, constantly en route between one destination and the next, inspecting the world for images of himself, which he then writes about with his educated, golden pen. Women may be allowed to fulfil the function of Muse, but their Echo- like desire for the self-absorbed Narcissus won't make him turn his face towards them, away from the mirror in which he regards himself.

It's a tough break falling in love with an RE, as Caroline Lamb or Harriet Shelley (or Anne Chatwin, or Lady Marguerite Blakeney) could have told you. They're always somewhere else, somewhere under a post-colonial sun, squinting at the horizon, one hand on hip, choosing an adjective, dreaming of glory. You may get a jewelled Egyptian scarab out of it, or a 1,000- year-old egg. Or a place in the next page of acknowledgements.