Our favourite books could reveal much about our individual views of romance. As people grow up, the stories they treasure shape their expectations and attitudes towards relationships.
When Jane Austen won a spot on a British bank note many fans rejoiced. Critics of romantic fiction were less pleased, however. A criticism of Austen is that her heroines are purely driven by romance but is this true?
One of the most beloved figures in literature is Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, an intelligent and determined woman of 20 years. Elizabeth is self-educated, witty and quite determined to marry a man of her choosing, if she marries at all.
“I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
She rejects proposals from men in the face of family pressure and personal dislike and only agrees to marry Darcy when he proves his devotion to her and learns to be less proud. She is hailed as a proto-feminist and indeed the development of women’s rights can be traced through literature.
Unhealthy relationships can of course be found. Characters can be ‘crazy in love’, what psychologists term limerance (Tennov, 1975). The central relationship in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877) falls into this category. From their first meeting Anna is infatuated with Count Vronsky and becomes compelled to leave her husband and child to be with him. He is similarly obsessed but finds this does not lead to contentment.
“Vronsky, meanwhile, in spite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy. He soon felt that the realisation of his desires gave him no more than a grain of sand out of the mountain of happiness he had expected. It showed him the mistake men make in picturing to themselves happiness as the realisation of their desires.” Leopold Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
Their love story has a famously tragic end as her jealousy and remorse for losing custody of her son drives her to commit suicide. The parallel relationship of Levin and Kitty survives an early rejection to become far more fulfilling and an example of a healthy, trusting relationship.
A rather extreme case of commitment can be found in classical text The Odyssey by Homer. The hero Odysseus spent ten years fighting with the Greek army at Troy and then took the long way home, journeying for a further ten years. Though assured her husband had died, his wife Penelope remained steadfast in her commitment and refused all 108 suitors.
Not reconciling oneself to past heartbreak or being adequately prepared for marriage is a common source of tragedy. Perhaps the most iconic love story in American literature, Gone With The Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler had a tempestuous relationship over several years, during which Scarlett pined for her first love. Madame Bovary’s dissatisfaction with married life led to affairs. Thérèse Raquin - pushed into an unhappy marriage to her cousin by her aunt – began an affair which led to the poisoning of her husband and a protagonist tormented by guilt. Not a relationship one should copy.
We understand that one of the journeys we take towards adulthood is learning from the mistakes and follies of others, be they real or fictional.
Jane Austen (1813). Pride and Prejudice
Tennov, Dorothy (1979). Love and limerence: the experience of being in love.
Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna Karenina.
Homer (date unknown). The Odyssey.
Margaret Mitchell (1936). Gone With The Wind.
Gustave Flaubert (1857). Madame Bovary.
Émile Zola (1867). Terese Raquin.