Thursday, March 3, 2016

Love stories for a leap day

It was leap day, and I thought I didn't care. I was going to let it pass like any other, but for the first time in a week, I got onto social media that morning and was reminded that the day comes only every four years. It's an extra day, a sort of gift.

So my first thought was about my husband. We should have made plans to spend special time together, at least more time than we usually do on a Monday full of work, soccer practices and religious education. I called my man, but he had no extra time because of meetings. It was a day like any other.

What else was an intelligent, feeling woman to do?

I considered shopping but the idea was insipid. There was only one thing to do. If I couldn't have my man, I must have my writing, another love.

On Leap Day I wanted to finally begin addressing a topic here about which I am very passionate: love stories - the great love stories, classic tales of pure passion.

If you are thinking of any book with the word "Fifty" in its title, I must disabuse you of the notion. I wrote "love", "great" and "classic". That book is disqualified.

[I haven't read it, so undoubtedly some will think I'm being unfair, but that book angers me. It angers me that any woman would confess to a man that she has read it in a world where terrible violence against women is so common and under-addressed. I would rather no man ever thought that we secretly longed to be stalked, disrespected, used, abused and bought.

Apparently, it has also spawned a genre called Babes and Billionaires. Bah!

My 13-year-old son said that there were girls in his class who said they couldn't wait for the "Grey" movie to come out. God help us! It's like a cancer destined to rot people's minds and intentions and purer desires for real love and respect. I acknowledge I haven't read it, but I have read reviews of some of the salacious, disturbing details contained in its pages, and I can only hope that no woman would EVER let her children know she has read it, thereby leading them to believe that she condones its content or that it represents a great tale of love for her.

For my part as a romantically-inclined woman, give me North and South with its insightful social commentary instead! Or Pride and Prejudice in which Darcy and Elizabeth make each other better people, learning humility, forgiveness, charity and selflessness on their journey to love!

There, we're done with that. If I am being unfair, you may tell me so.]

The great tales of love that I esteem are all classics. Their characters have stood the test of time and their actions represent such profound and now too often neglected ideas of honor, loyalty, compassion, sacrifice, and selfless, transforming love. Like any truly great piece of literature, they enrich our experience and our worldview; make us reflect, believe and examine ourselves; deftly reveal the grittier parts of our nature and our proclivities without glorifying them; and remind us that we should always try to be better people for those we love and for the betterment of society in general.

They are, to name a few

Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion by Jane Austen

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

These are the stories I do or will recommend to my children and friends. These stories I delight in watching with my husband when they are translated into film.

I thought I would share some excerpts of the grand ideas that used to inhabit our romantic tales before we turned scoundrels into heroes, before the selfish, shallow and manipulative Wickhams and Sergeant Troys of literature somehow became our Mr. Darcys and Gabriel Oaks. We all know that literature would be flat without such rotten characters as Wickham in Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but at least there was a time in our storytelling when they were revealed to be villains and their actions to be false and self-gratifying. The women who were deceived by them and their cajolery were afterwards better equipped to acknowledge a good and steady man.

The humble, hardworking and loyal Gabriel Oak in Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd is, for instance, just such a humble, strong and loyal hero. He has the courage and the integrity to say to impulsive, well-off Bathsheba, the woman he loves but who does not love him:

"My opinion is (since you ask it) that you are greatly to blame for playing pranks upon a man like Mr. Boldwood, merely as a pastime. Leading on a man you don't care for is not a praiseworthy action."

Bravo, Gabriel!

Our romantic heroines were also made of sterner stuff, could not be won with mere money, had greater understanding and a greater capacity for self-examination once upon a time. For what are the thoughts of Margaret Hale of North and South when she finds that the man she rejected - Mr. Thornton, the manufacturer whom she yet respects - has found her out in a lie and has nevertheless acted to protect her from the consequences of her choice despite her recent refusal of him?

If she had but dared to bravely tell the truth as regarded herself, defying them to find out what she had refused to tell concerning another, how light of heart she would have now felt! Not humbled before God, as having failed in trust towards him; not degraded and abased in Mr. Thornton's sight.

Where are such sentiments in contemporary literature? I hope such ideals are present in which even simple, brave honesty is something to which people still aspire.

And what does the great and incomparable Darcy say to Elizabeth when he finally wins her after initial alienation because of his pride?

"I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper...

What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."

Lastly, I wanted to quote from Jane Eyre. I have heard that Gothic romance compared to a soap opera, and I understand why to some degree, but I argue here for the characters and their moral battles. Rochester deceived Jane in his quest for peace and happiness, and he is ruled by his moods and passions, a volatile man with whom I can personally relate. But he also tries to rescue his crazy wife from death by a fire she started and rears a child who is not his own. Before Jane leaves him, because she will not be with a man who has a wife (preferring to lose her livelihood and risk her life to keep her integrity), Rochester grabs her in frustration. It is then he acknowledges that the woman he really loves is not a mere physical frame but is - more vitally - a beautiful mind, heart and soul.

"Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it - the savage, beautiful creature! If I tear, if I rend the slight prison, my outrage will only let the captive loose. Conqueror I might be of the house; but the inmate would escape to heaven before I could call myself possessor of its dwelling-place. And it is you, spirit - with will and energy, and virtue and purity - that I want: not alone your brittle frame."

Jane is the more admirable person in that relationship, but Rochester is at last transformed by his love for her, humbled, and renewed.

Great love stories are not simply about sexual desire. In the best tales the lovers improve each other in myriad ways on the fascinating way to deep love and respect, and love has room to grow even on a very circuitous journey. Sexual satisfaction is not held up as the begin all, end all, be all. Spiritual growth and moral strength are the measuring sticks of relationships.

Those are my thoughts, at least, and these are the stories I don't blush to recommend to others. What great romantic tales have I overlooked or undervalued that you would proudly share with your friends and children?


  1. I agree with you heart and soul. I wouldn't have chosen all these. I had forgotten about Gabriel Oak, but I have a prejudice against Hardy who always ends miserably. (Does that one end miserably)? And Jane Eyre, too, I liked it less because he had a wife and hid it. But the ending is good. Loved Gaskell and Austen (of course, duh). And Middlemarch - I'm sure I read it, but can't remember it.

    THESE are what make great romance. By the way, have you ever read Georgette Heyer? True, she was not so much a classicist as the ones you've mentioned, but I love her so much. If you haven't, try Arabella.

    1. George Eliot was a writer I admired very early. Middlemarch really delves very deftly into relationships. Dorothea, the heroine, gives up a great deal of money for the man she loves at the end after making some regrettable and idealistic decisions, but a doctor in that story has a very miserable life with his frivolous wife. Mill on the Floss by Eliot would also belong nicely on my list.

      Far From the Madding Crowd does not end miserably, but misery takes up a great part of the middle story. The movie is excellent, really, and the actor who plays Oak in the film version says that his character embodies all the attributes we all want to have, a very selfless and honorable man. Hardy is on this list also because I am astounded by his gift with language and his ability to weave the most basic theological ideas and deep insights on human nature into his storytelling.

      I understand what you mean about Jane Eyre. I debated about including it though I love it dearly. In the end it was Jane Eyre herself that made me include it. She does not give into her emotions. She follows her moral compass in very difficult and tempting circumstances, risks losing a great deal by protecting her integrity, trusting God.

      I will have to check out Heyer. Thank you for mentioning her and for commenting here, Jennie!


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