I’m a sucker for a good love story, most likely thanks to my parents. Forty years ago this weekend they tied the knot after a long and spirited courtship that nobody really believed would end in marriage, given how independent both parties were (think Beatrice and Benedick). To this day they remain devoted, affectionate sparring partners in the game of life; it’s inspirational, really, the kind of long-term success story about which epic poems and great novels are written.
I’ve noticed, though, that in fiction and literature so many of the “great” love stories end badly, be it by death, betrayal, or temporal dislocation. That’s not exactly encouraging, now, is it? Luckily, there are also many wonderful novels with happy endings that can reaffirm your faith in true love without going overboard on the treacle factor. Observe.
Possession, A.S. Byatt. This is the best kind of love story, the kind where all the obstacles the characters encounter turn out to be worth it in the end. Getting there is half the fun, however, and there’s quite a lot to get through in this long, literary tale of two sets of lovers: a pair of Victorian poets and the scholars who study them after their deaths. The passion and angst quotients are high, but that just makes the resolution all the better. Read the book, then pick up the film for date night with your favorite lit crit wit.
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen. No offense to Colin Firth or the entire Mr. Darcy franchise, but I’ve always preferred this tale of lessons learned and love won (and the presence of Alan Rickman in the film certainly doesn’t hurt). Flighty Marianne Dashwood learns the hard way that a handsome physiognomy doesn’t necessarily house a gentlemanly heart; meanwhile, sister Elinor discovers that while reserve is admirable, it is occasionally possible to keep one’s feelings too much a secret. After much confusion and mayhem, the sisters’ double happiness is secured. Hurray!
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. In typical Dickensian fashion, his final novel is jam-packed with enough characters and plotlines to render all but the most careful readers dizzy. These include two romantic storylines in which wealth and social class play pivotal roles. Determined to help her family by marrying for money, proud young Bella Wilfer grows to care for John Harmon, a man she thinks is a pauper. Meanwhile, Lizzie Hexam, a waterman’s daughter, finds herself embroiled in a love triangle with two gentlemen far above her station, one of whom she loves, but fears she can never hope to marry. Dickens definitely turns on the brooding and despair for this episode of his London chronicles, but brings both romances to tender, satisfying endings that will melt even the most hard-hearted reader.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. Three out of four March sisters find romantic happiness against the backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods (I suppose there has to be a little tragedy to keep a novel interesting, but, still, poor Beth!). Conventional Meg and coquettish Amy are paired off easily enough, but the highlight of the book, for me, is when tomboyish, career-minded Jo manages to pursue her own dreams and find true love, without compromsing on either aspect. A pretty nifty writing feat, that, considering the limited range of acceptable paths for women in Alcott’s era. This is the most sentimental of the lot, so you might want to opt for the most recent film version, and fast-forward through the mushy parts (at least until Gabriel Byrne shows up).
Of course, one of the best love stories ever was the real-life romance and marriage of the Brownings, poets Elizabeth and Robert. An attraction sparked by poetic skill, a disapproving papa, a miraculous recovery from long-term illness, and a dashing elopement are just the beginning of what was definitely a marriage of true minds. You can read all about it in Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, which describes in intimate detail how the couple weathered both the sunny and shadowy elements of their relationship, and helped each other grow as poets and people.
Scoff if you like, but if life hasn’t beaten faith in true love out of me by now, it probably never will. Do you have a great romance to share, either fictional or biographical? Do you like your love stories sunny or star-crossed?
who is more like Marianne than Elinor, despite her best intentions
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