To commemorate Valentine’s Day, National Review Online asked some friends and contributors for their favorite love stories, from Austen to Tolstoy (and back to Austen, again).
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, is my favorite because it shows the triumph of love over the two most powerful obstacles to it, with a happy ending in which the two most attractive characters fall into each other’s arms. But the book (or the movie) raises a swirl of questions as well.
Is pride overcome by love or is it not combined with it? Are we readers not pleased, even in this democratic age, by the benefits that Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s grand estate, will bring to Elizabeth Bennet when she marries him? This suggests that money should accompany love, not be banished from it. Even money without love has its consolations, as we see in the comfortable life Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas makes for herself with the odious Mr. Collins. And is not Mr. Darcy’s pride in his status (and money) justified, at least in part, by his use of it to save Elizabeth Bennet’s sister from shame?
Mr. Darcy is proud to have a fine personal library in his estate, built up over generations. This will enable Elizabeth to accomplish something he thinks very important in a woman: “the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” Hmm. Does this mean he thinks women are inferior to men, or superior? Which is the meaning of sending a valentine?
– Harvey Mansfield is a distinguished research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
All lovers tend to think that they begin the world again.
The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages
And the first love of the world,
as W. H. Auden wrote. Something of that same expansiveness goes with the world-body motif in the love poems of Donne or Marvell. But at a particular moment in history, the dawn of the modernist era in pre–World War I Europe, it really did look to many as if the world were beginning again. The crackpot utopianism of the 19th century suddenly seemed to a new generation to portend a possible, even inevitable re-making of reality itself–including all that European civilization had always understood of the reality of love and sex. François Truffaut’s great 1962 film Jules et Jim presents us with a portrait of that hopeful dawn and three attractive revolutionaries–Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, and Henri Serre–whose tragic love-triangle symbolizes the revenge of reality on their utopian hopes by negatively affirming (on the very eve of the sexual revolution of the 1960s!) the traditional romantic moral order in the same way that contemporary noir films did the economic moral order.
– James Bowman is a movie critic.
PIA DI SOLENNI
A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of Nobel Prize winner John Nash.
This is a favorite of mine because it’s one of the few stories where a couple sticks it out through the “for worse” part of their vows, and makes it to the “for better” part.
While teaching at MIT, the brilliant Professor Nash meets and falls in love with one of his students, Alicia Larde. They marry and have a child, but it turns out that the brilliant professor is also a brilliant mental case.
In other romance movies, Alicia would have walked out with the baby, perhaps developed her own niche career, and met some absolutely charming man to replace her husband. Or Nash would have been completely cured of his mental illness and everything would have been roses and sunshine. Instead, Alicia sends their son to her mother’s so that he will be safe while she stays to work with her husband on his illness.
The hallucinations never go away completely. Nash has to make a decision to ignore them. His career eventually gets back on track. (In real life, their marriage and circumstances were much worse.) But at the end of the movie, when he accepts his award, John and Alicia are there together as husband and wife.
– Pia de Solenni is the president of Diotima Consulting, LLC.
MEGHAN COX GURDON
Impossible! Amongst novels, how can anyone have a single favorite love story when Jane Austen wrote six? As far as I’m concerned, Austen’s are by far the wittiest, most moving, and most delightful happy love stories in all of English literature, and, as toddlers are wont to say when confronted with a choice of desserts, “They are all my favorites.” And indeed, the variation in deliciousness between Elizabeth Bennet’s match with Fitzwilliam Darcy and, for instance, Emma Woodhouse’s eventual union with George Knightley are as unimportant to the hungry reader as the difference in taste between brownies and cake.
– Meghan Cox Gurdon is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and a regular contributor to the books pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Shadowlands, the 1993 film featuring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, is based on the true story of the relationship between C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. In the heart of romantic Oxford, Lewis, a 54-year-old bachelor, meets Joy, a straight-talking American who catches his eye as both his intellectual and his spiritual match. His growing feelings for Joy unsettle his safe world, carefully created to protect himself from pain. Lewis treads cautiously as they develop a friendship; however, after she is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he dives headlong, confesses his love, and marries her right there in the hospital room. While on their honeymoon, Joy brings up the topic of her imminent death, much to Lewis’s chagrin. She says that being honest about the future will allow them to enjoy each other more deeply in the present: “The pain then is part of the happiness now–that’s the deal.”
Their love story is one giant catharsis. There’s something wild and free when people love each other so extravagantly while mortality stares them right in the face. And, if you’re looking for inspiration, you’ll enjoy watching the transformation of Lewis into someone who is willing to risk it all for love.
– Kristin Hansen is vice president of communications for Care Net, an umbrella organization supporting 1,100 pregnancy centers across North America.
Certainly the most wonderful love story I have ever read is that of Natasha Rostov and Pierre Bezuhov in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. When the novel begins, she is a high-spirited child soon to enter into adolescence, and he, the illegitimate son of a high-born Russian nobleman, has returned to Moscow from abroad, where he has commenced upon what is to be an arduous but never quite illuminated spiritual quest.
Natasha begins to grow up, and the spirited child turns out to be a lively, high-spirited, and thus, of course, foolishly romantic–and utterly delicious–young woman. She has, for instance, to be saved from eloping with a less-than-sterling young officer, and later she imagines herself to be in love with another of the novel’s main characters who is mortally wounded in the novel’s titular war, Napoleon versus Russia.
And all the while Pierre stumbles around, making and then suffering in a bad marriage, and seeking to understand a world in which he cannot find a place for himself. In my edition of the novel it takes nearly a thousand pages for Natasha and Pierre, both of whom the reader has frequently been made anxious about, to come together and learn what romance truly is: friendship, trust, marriage, and finally, children. I am told that nowadays many students of literature who read the novel as a class assignment find the end of the novel to be a letdown. My advice to them is to set aside Philip Roth and remain for a while longer at the feet of the master.
– Midge Decter is the author most recently of Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait.
If you care at all about the place of love in a civilized order, you will love one of the “forgotten Victorians”: novelist Margaret Oliphant. She has two books in print. The first is Miss Marjoribanks, in which Oliphant takes a simple tale of a school girl who comes home after her mother’s death to run her father’s household in a small English town–and turns it into an hysterical mock epic.
Then, for those who prefer to read about a bank panic and a female banker’s response, there’s Hester.
Oliphant almost but never quite made it into the feminist pantheon because she had her fingers on two great truths: First, yes, women’s desire to and interest in creating private life and sustaining private relationships (including the family) are often quite costly to them personally. Oliphant’s books (like her life) are populated by Victorian gentlemen who fail in the difficult business of providing and eventually relapse into contentedly living off the heroic efforts of wives, sisters, and mothers. Her second great truth: Women’s contributions to the private and family realm–to love–are crucial and irreplaceable.
Oliphant never resolved the tensions she raises, and really, neither have we.
My favorite love story of Margaret Oliphant is The Doctor’s Family (which is not really in print but can be printed on demand). Here a woman heroically sacrifices her time, her energy, and her fortune for her sister, her sister’s ne’er-do-well husband, and their three deeply unattractive children because–well, what else can you do? You don’t choose the people you love. Somebody has to take care of the children.
A doctor who falls in love with the good sister, passionately and intently, tries to imagine actually marrying her–but he realizes quite sensibly that he cannot possibly take on the burden of the ne’er-do-well family without perpetual resentment and that she, his great love, cannot possibly abandon them.
It is a great writer’s wholly original reflection, arising from deep personal experience, on the deepest meaning of this whole love thing–a real and very serious meditation on what women do with their lives, how it makes no sense at all, and yet is the most important force in the universe.
For those who are feeling less lucky in love this Valentine’s day, may I also offer one of my favorite Phillip Larkin poems:
Since the majority of me
Rejects the majority of you,
Debating ends forwith, and we
Divide. And sure of what to do
We disinfect new blocks of days
For our majorities to rent
With unshared friends and unwalked ways,
But silence too is eloquent:
A silence of minorities
That, unopposed at last, return
Each night with cancelled promises
They want renewed. They never learn.
– Maggie Gallagher is president of the National Organization for Marriage.
STEVEN E. RHOADS
Pride and Prejudice–so hilarious, so wise.
Young women are bound to ask if Elizabeth would have won Darcy if she had seemed interested from the start, and if they, too, are not better off being less accessible when competing for the guy that all the girls want.
We grown men who should speak our love, but rarely do, are given hope when our beloveds are still charmed by Darcy. Deeds still speak louder. . . . What Lizzie at first sees as “an exertion of goodness too great to be probable” can still come from ordinary Palookas capable of fierce love and loyalty when really needed.
And the Gardiners teach us a truth of their time. At first, they both think Wickham plans to marry Lydia. “His temptation is not adequate to the risk . . . It is really too great a violation of decency, honor and interest.”
Wickham doesn’t plan marriage. But he is cornered. He cannot think of a place he can go in England or what he can live on. He vaguely hopes to make his fortune “by marriage in some other country.”
Older men protect young women from the worst of the cads. Men always want high status, and they are tempted to toy with the nubile years of more than one woman. The Victorians said you can’t have both, and thus found a way more regularly to turn men’s lust into love.
– Steven E. Rhoads is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and the author of Taking Sex Differences Seriously.
Ten days ago the doctor told me to go home, swallow some antibiotics, get into bed, and just rest for the next three days. Naturally I was delighted at this prospect of guilt-free idleness. But you can’t write or even read for long in a flu-and-drug-induced stupor. So I took out some Frasier DVDs and watched them for almost the entire time.
And after watching Dr. Niles Crane and Ms. Daphne Moon zigzag crazily through a maze of comic misunderstandings into each others’ arms, I assert boldly that the Niles and Daphne romance is one of the great love stories of literature.
Why? Well, first, it fulfils the classic tests of mythic love stories. Niles treasures Daphne in his heart for the standard seven years of separation. (True, he gets married twice in this period, but every Odysseus is allowed the occasional Calypso in his exile, particularly since Daphne isn’t quite as faithful as Penelope.)
Then, when Niles seems finally to have won his lady love, she herself adds the traditional test of a last riddle for him to solve. Fortunately, he realizes that their love can be consummated only when he has the courage to list Daphne’s faults. This produces instant sexual fulfillment on both sides–and one of the best exchanges in the series:
Daphne: “So you don’t think I’m psychic?”
Niles: “If you think I like your cooking, I don’t see how you can be.”
If myth is one element in the romance, another is chivalry. Among the many obstacles Niles has surmounted to reach this point is his own character as a gentleman. Whenever he is emotionally free, Daphne seems to be committed elsewhere. He tries to observe the rules of chivalry, to remain silent, and to subordinate his own happiness to Daphne’s. It is only when he realizes she loves him and their joint happiness would be destroyed by continued silence that he speaks out.
When he does speak out, he avows his love boldly and simply. Because Niles is usually neurotic and fussy, the studio audience actually gasped at that point. It is one of the two emotional high points of the romance.
The other is Daphne’s reply. After several interruptions and a long nervous pause, she grabs Niles and kisses him passionately, only to break away and say sadly that she cannot cancel her wedding. They must part forever.
“Actions speak louder than words,” I thought confidently. The next morning Daphne in white flees the altar and elopes with Niles in a highly unromantic Winnebago.
Myth, chivalry, love conquers all–this heavy romantic stuff from the wrong hands could be like eating an entire box of chocolates in one sitting. What saves it from sickliness is that it occurs in the most consistently funny sitcom on television.
Much of the credit must go to the writers, who manage to combine farce and poignancy in exactly the right proportions in scene after scene. I hear echoes of Wodehouse, Rattigan, Coward, Feydeau, Preston Sturges, Samson Raphaelson, and Anouilh, but none strongly enough to dent the brilliant contemporary originality of the scripts.
And, finally, there are Jane Leeves and David Hyde Pierce as Daphne and Niles. It is a classic pairing. There are echoes in it of a remark Katherine Hepburn once made about Astaire and Rogers: “Ginger gave him sex, and Fred gave her class.” But Niles and Daphne exchange other things alongside class and sex–namely wit and warmth.
So grow up, Romeo and Juliet. And drop dead, Tristan and Isolde. With Niles and Daphne we are laughing all the way to a happy ending.
– John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.