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The Independent Online
THE story of little Sarah Cook and her Turkish waiter left decent Sun readers numb with shock, and the Daily Mail called their liaison "a bizarre romance". The shocking thing about it, however, was that it was not a romance. On the contrary: it was true. Thirteen-year-old Sarah really had changed her religion and gone through a form of marriage with her 18-year-old swain. Certainly the romances published by Mills and Boon are expected to end at the altar, but those are fantasies. The idea of a romance as having anything to do with real life is probably less than 100 years old. The first edition of the OED, of which the relevant volume came out in about 1910, carried no mention of romance in other than a fictional context. We still hear people talking about "a real-life romance" as though such a thing were odd.

The word began, with a capital R, to mean the French language - which was a corruption of that spoken by the ancient Romans - and a romance was so called because the French couldn't stop making up immensely long and fanciful stories. Among the best-known in England was the Roman de la Rose, partly translated by Chaucer, an allegory of courtly love; C S Lewis calls the first of its two authors, Guillaume de Lorris, "the founder of the sentimental novel". As Lewis explains, courtly love excluded marriage. The two were incompatible. It was the gentle chase that mattered.

Romance seems to spill into reality in expressions like "shipboard romance" or the "holiday romance" with which Sarah Cook's saga is reported to have begun. After all, we are talking about real people. But isn't this only a way of saying that those concerned are letting go of reality? It is they who, for a moment at least, are spilling into fiction. Romanticising, you might say.