Culture

Our Favorite Love Stories

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Reflections on love and romance as Valentine’s Day draws near.

Editor’s Note: For Valentine’s Day, NRO asked colleagues and friends to reflect on their favorite love stories.

Lauren Ashburn

As we walked, he told me he was from Minnesota and just moved to town to work at the law firm above the metro. When we arrived at my door, a half-block from our chance encounter, we exchanged business cards (while juggling the rug, a briefcase, and my purse and briefcase). He said, “Call me.” “Don’t worry,” I quipped as I walked quickly into my building. Don’t worry? Where did that come from? Bewildered, a voice inside my head said, “You just met the man you’re going to marry.”

When I came to his walk-up apartment a week later to “see the rug,” déjà vu hit me. I’d been there before. The next day I called my best friend from grade school and asked her where she lived when she attended George Washington University. She lived in the exact same apartment, except the walls were painted pink, and she lived with two roommates. My rug guy was still receiving catalogues in the mail with her name on them.

And there began what I know now to be a 23-year love affair complete with a mortgage, three kids, a dog, two fish, and a few snails. A picture of the “Don’t Walk” sign from outside the apartment hangs in our family room.

— Lauren Ashburn is a contributor to The Hill.

 

Richard Brookhiser

One day James Fennimore Cooper tossed down a novel he was reading and said, “I could do better!” When his wife challenged him to try, he wrote a novel of manners, like the book he had discarded, which flopped. But his second book, a tale of Revolutionary War espionage, and his third, which introduced the frontiersman Natty Bumppo, made him a star.

I like Cooper, but the irony of his literary debut is that we think the book he threw down was Jane Austen’s Persuasion, one of the best novels ever written, and my favorite love story.

I am neither an Austen groupie nor an Anglophile. I read her for her humor, her meanness, and her stories. Her novels tell variations on one story — the worthy young woman finds a deserving man. Formally they are comedies, ending in happy weddings. Pride and Prejudice, her most dramatic and her sunniest, is both a great book and the best possible drug-store-rack romance.

Persuasion is different because when it begins the worthy young woman, Anne Elliot, and the deserving man, Frederick Wentworth, have found each other, but broken it off.

Eight years have passed. Anne is now 27 — old for an unmarried woman — Wentworth a rising naval officer. The heroine’s family often provides comic relief in Austen novels, but Anne’s sisters are differently horrible and her father, Sir Walter Elliot, is a monster of vanity.

There are complications and subplots, which unfold in an atmosphere of social constraint and personal hopelessness. Fear not, the lovers find each other at last — but only after overcoming assorted stupidities and their own shortcomings. It is a happy ending dearly won, and sweet because it is the victory of two now-wise adults.

Not, may we all be so lucky, but, may we all earn such luck.

— Richard Brookhiser is senior editor of National Review and author of, most recently, Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln.​

Julieanne Dolan

Ten years ago I would have said without hesitation that my favorite love stories spring from the pages of Jane Austen’s Persuasion or Sense and Sensibility. I still love those novels, but I love them more as literary masterpieces than as love stories. Today the love stories that attract and inspire me come in rather less polished form. They are the stories of the people whose love I am blessed to witness in everyday life: the wife who has tended to her sick husband for a decade, the friend who continues to pray for the husband who abandoned her, the boss who devoted his life to raising five wonderful children and 15 grandchildren with his wife, the young couple still new to married life building a home for their two small children. Their stories are adorned not with clever quips and elegant turns of phrase, but with blue jeans, dark circles under the eyes, and maybe a little undiscovered spit up on the sleeve. Like the velveteen rabbit in Margery Williams’s classic children’s story, the wear and tear of love is not without personal cost to them. And yet, all that is rubbed away in their efforts to love subtracts nothing from the beauty of their stories; indeed it makes it real.

— Julieanne Dolan is a doctoral student in theology at the University of Notre Dame.

 

Lee Edwards

I had read somewhere that on a first date, you should give the young lady flowers, candy, and make her smile.

So on my first date with Anne Stevens, who would in time become Mrs. Edwards, I knocked on the door of her third-story walkup on the West Side of Manhattan and presented her with one red rose and a Hershey chocolate bar.

She smiled. I then reached into my pocket, removed a New Year’s noise maker and blew it gustily in her face. She stopped smiling.

Well, I thought, two out of three isn’t bad.

I later learned that when Anne went into the back room for her coat, she said to her roommate, “It’s going to be a long night.”

Happily, the long night turned into a delight-filled weekend of the Café Carlyle, the Metropolitan Museum, the Plaza, the Our Lady Chapel at St. Patrick’s, and a good-bye kiss at Penn Station as I headed back to Washington, D.C. There have been some ups and downs, but we celebrate our 50th anniversary this May 1, praise God.  

— Lee Edwards is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation and author of a book about William F. Buckley Jr.

 

Rebeccah Heinrichs

The love story of Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnut in the 1950s classic The African Queen begins with Christian love for the unreached and ends with a victory in the First World War. The adventure starts in East Africa as Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) is delivering mail by his river boat The African Queen to Christian missionaries Rose (Katharine Hepburn) and her brother. Charlie is affable although lazy, crass, and often drunk. Rose is industrious, lady-like, and pious. When German soldiers destroy the mission town, Charlie returns, and offers to take Rose to safety. Rose accepts his offer but not in the interest of safety. In passing Charlie mentions the strategically important German gunboat, Queen Louisa, and Rose convinces him that they should seek to destroy it. They scheme to convert The African Queen into a torpedo and ram it into the German gunboat. Most of their time at work on this project is spent bickering — at one point Rose dumps Charlie’s supply of gin overboard to his shock and horror. Charlie argued that “it’s human nature” for a man to drink too much now and again. Rose responds, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put into this world to rise above.” As my friend Julie Ponzi explained, “In other words, our natural, God-given purpose (or higher nature) is to rise above our base, natural instincts.” Over the course of the voyage Rose challenges Charlie to do just this. Dirty, exhausted, and repeatedly facing death, the two fall in love. Without spoiling the end too much, Rose and Charlie wed. One can only imagine the two live happily ever after, not without conflict by any means, but amusing and admiring one another, and refining each other into what God purposed them to be. That’s the kind of romance that never gets old.

— Rebeccah  Heinrichs writes about defense policy and specializes in missile defense and nuclear deterrence. She’s also happily married to Hanz, who makes her better.

 

Elizabeth Kantor

Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, of course — who, topically for this particular Valentine’s Day, happen to be the definitive answer to Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Jane Austen’s heroine and her lover “torture” and “humble” each other — but quite differently from how that’s done in the two-dimensional images or the erotica into which men and women can run away from each other these days. Darcy’s words: “Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget . . . Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me; though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.” Elizabeth’s thoughts: “For herself she was humbled, but she was proud of him.” What Elizabeth and Darcy manage so delightfully is really mixing it up with another living, breathing human being entirely different from yourself — in a game where the stakes are higher than we’re used to playing for. For them, love, and each other, matter enough to change them forever. While they’re playful, they’re never just playacting. They undergo the healthy and fruitful pain that necessarily accompanies the always startling recognition of the reality and value of another person. But their love isn’t just an experience. It’s also an irrevocable choice. The clue to the difference, I think, is in Darcy’s reference to the “justice” of Elizabeth’s words. He’s appealing to a standard — a solid but invisible reality — without which what happens between the two of them would be completely impossible. If we want what they picture, we might want to look into that.

— Elizabeth Kantor is the author, most recently, of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After.

 

Jeanne Monahan-Mancini

Being a very recent newlywed, married less than three months, my favorite love story is . . . ours! One of my most treasured Scripture passages is Psalm 37. One line reads, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will grant you the desires of your heart.” Another line is “Commit your way to the Lord, trust in Him and He will act.” Both of these were and are favorites, because I had a very deep desire for holy marriage, but despite trying to meet Mr. Right for many years, I just could not make it happen or fall into place. I had no other option than to trust that God would act! And act He did, thankfully, and in His perfect time.

Shortly after my fortieth birthday I was attending a weekday mass and afterwards met a man I immediately sensed would be a special person in my life. There was something different about our relationship, a sense of “rightness.” That does not mean it was perfect. Some of the early times in our relationship still make us laugh, like the time he made dinner for us and after tasting it, I told him it was good to know he was not great at everything and clearly he needed a woman in his life! Despite our foibles we had a whole lot of fun and developed a strong friendship while hiking, kayaking, praying, going to Church, and even cooking more! Our friendship turned into a courtship, which became an engagement, and by God’s grace over this past Thanksgiving weekend, became marriage. While our relationship is still a work in progress, it is a truly beautiful love story with the best possible author, God.

Jeanne Monahan-Mancini is president of the March for Life.

 

Connie Marshner

My mother-in-law, Mutti, told me that Papi was all she wanted in a husband: He didn’t beat her, he didn’t drink, and he brought home his paycheck. 

Those were the expectations of a girl who had grown up in Baltimore during the Depression. Papi agreed to join the Lutheran Church and that sealed the deal. He was a man of few words, and I doubt that “I love you” were among them. They were married 45 years and we all grieved when he died.

A couple years later, I started hearing about her cousin’s widower, Al. She felt sorry for him, with nobody to cook for him. She would take him food, and he’d return the dishes.

He’d return them in the evening, and she knew he wanted to be invited to stay to dinner. “But it wouldn’t be proper,” she said, “alone in the house after dark!”

Al invited her out to eat. But Mutti had prepared every meal she ever ate in her life, and she couldn’t abide strange cooking.

Then Al asked her to go to the country to pick peaches with him. He couldn’t can them, so she offered to can his as well as hers. That got him in her kitchen for long hours, and soon they were sharing meals at her table.

One evening, as he was leaving, she stepped onto the back porch to see him off. The door was still open, and I heard him say “I love you” — and then a definite smooch.

She didn’t say a word, but when she came back in I stole a glance at her. I had never seen so much happiness on any face.

Mutti and Al were married a short while later. The minister joked that at 74 and 77, the bride and groom knew what they were doing. They didn’t have even ten years together, but I bet he said “I love you” every single day. And I bet it made her face glow every time he said it. 

Sometimes, romance is all the richer for having waited for it.

— Connie Marshner is president of Marshner & Associates.

 

John J. Miller

My favorite love story? I’m not sure, but here’s a good one: The song “Question,” by the Old 97’s. The second stanza is just perfect. The songwriter Rhett Miller performs it in this video:

— Colette Moran writes from Virginia.

 

Mary Powers

One of my favorite love stories is the development and fruition of the love between Meg March and John Brooke in Little Women. Theirs is a relationship and love that reflects a real understanding of what it means to fall in love, how to court or date, and what married life is like after the honeymoon.

While at first John is enamored by Meg, she more just enjoys his attention rather than taking his intention seriously. However, their relationship blossoms while Meg’s father is wounded and John travels Washington, D.C. for work with Mrs. March. During this time, he writes to her about Washington and his frequent visits with her parents. Meg, as the oldest, is left to manage the home and help provide income. Late at night, after going through the account book, Meg secretly reads and re-reads John’s letters and responds with her own news and thoughts. Their correspondence brings them closer together while also bringing them comfort in the midst of very trying times.

After the war ends, Meg and John get married and Lousia May Alcott’s chapter on their “domestic life” is beautiful and yet very entertaining. After the honeymoon period of domestic bliss, reality sets in. The Brookes learn the hard lessons of married life while also learning how to love each other through it.

The development of their relationship and their constant desire for the well-being of the other brings a peace and dignity to their home and their marriage. I hope one day when my husband’s buttons continue to go missing that I too will be able to work through these minor problems with the same love of the Brookes.

— Mary Powers is a young professional living and working in Washington, D.C.

 

Elizabeth Scalia

At age 20 I began the process of discerning a vocation as a contemplative religious, specifically as a Poor Clare nun.

My parents were as dead-set against this idea as they had always been about any scenario that didn’t end with me either giving them grandchildren, or embracing a noble and care-taking spinsterhood that could assist them in their dotage. As a nun, I could serve neither of those ends, so — as much as they might have respected Saint Francis and Jesus — it was ixnay on this ride-bay of ist-kray. “Over our dead bodies” kept escalating, until I feared entire cities were at risk, were I to take the veil.

In the meantime, the opportunity arose for me to return to New York, where I had been born — a glamorous-seeming opportunity to work and finish school and get to know cousins who had, up until then, been nothing but names on Christmas cards.

Mere days after I had arrived, one of those cousins invited me to a “going away” party for another cousin, who was about to become a Capuchin friar.

Hours before the party, holding an encouraging letter from the Abbess with whom I had been corresponding, my ears ringing with yet another parental promise of international doom if I dared their wrath, I knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and delivered a daringly prayerful harangue, born of utter trust. “You have to do this,” I told Christ. “If you want me in the cloister, you’ve got to make that happen, because I’m getting nowhere! If you have something else out here for me, then you’d better show me what it is, because you’re supposed to love me, not leave me hanging!”

As I said the words, I felt a shift, and was overcome with a strange and wonderful stillness. I’d heard the scriptural phrase “peace beyond understanding,” but this was my first taste of it. In that moment, I knew that I did not have to give this issue another thought, and that everything would soon be apparent and unambiguous.

That afternoon, I met my enormous tribe of cousins for the first time, and soon the guest of honor arrived — a tall, strapping, handsome and fair fellow — and with him was a shorter, olive-skinned young man who was completely surrounded by what I can only describe as a fizzy nimbus of white, glowing light.

Completely dazzled, I approached a great-aunt I had met previously, and asked her who it was, laughing with my cousin.

“Oh, that’s his best friend,” she replied, gesturing with a cigarette while pouring herself either her second or third vodka and tonic. “They’re always together.”

I moved closer and lowered my voice, asking, “Is he going to be a priest, too?”

“Oh, no, not him,” Auntie said, laughing. “He’s going to be an engineer or an astronaut or something.”

“I’m going to marry him,” I told her.

 “Well, that makes sense,” she said as she toasted me and toddled off, “We were wondering amongst ourselves why you would bother coming back to New York; this place is becoming a hell-hole.”

He and I have been together — neither cloistered, nor hell-holed — ever since. Amen.

— Elizabeth Scalia is author of the Anchoress blog.

 

Julia Shaw

Winning the affections of a smart, sophisticated woman is difficult. Perhaps one needs to dominate her, à la 50 Shades of Grey. Perhaps one needs to submit to her, to sacrifice one’s ambition as she leans in.

Dorothy Sayers’s multi-book courtship of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane offers a different response. Forget the harmony, they will take the counterpoint.

Wimsey, an eccentric bachelor, solves murders for a hobby. Vane writes mysteries. Vane doesn’t envision herself the marrying type. When Wimsey first encounters her in Strong Poison, Vane stands accused of poisoning her lover. Wimsey exculpates Vane, but fails to woo her.

Wimsey continues the pursuit throughout Have His Carcase. Following her acquittal, Vane takes a vacation. But discovering a corpse on the beach interrupts her quiet holiday. Wimsey arrives to help her investigate the murder.

Vane finally accepts his proposal in Gaudy Night. Throughout the novel, set at Vane’s fictional all-women alma mater, Vane’s alumna struggle to understand their role in society. Should a woman follow her family’s ambitions over her own interests? Is a liberal education beneficial to a woman who would rather be a cook than an academic? Are some women just not the marrying type?

“Anybody can have the harmony,” Wimsey proposes to Vane, “if they will leave us the counterpoint.” That is, relationships with a dominant figure and a submissive figure can be lovely — they can produce a harmony. But Wimsey proposes something more complicated: “Polyphonic music takes a lot of playing. You’ve got to be more than a fiddler. It needs a musician . . . two musicians.” Wimsey proposes a partnership between two independent figures, making them interdependent. Polyphonic music requires two melodies. Each works on its own, but together they can make especially beautiful music.

— Julia Shaw is a writer in Alexandria, Va.

 

Christine Sisto

My favorite love story, fact or fiction, is that of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I know people probably laugh when they read that, but I believe that they loved each other strongly, which made their story’s end all the more tragic. Henry started a new religion and tore his country apart just so he could make Anne his wife — he didn’t want to insult her by making her another of his mistresses, which he could have easily done. During the six-year divorce proceedings, he and Anne did not have relations out of respect for her, yet he (reportedly) remained loyal to her. They were not married long and quarreled often, because Anne was one of the few women in England not afraid to argue with a king. Eventually, rumors of adultery, incest, and treason, provoked by Thomas Cromwell, led Henry to order Anne’s execution. He hired an executioner from Calais because of Anne’s love of French culture. Although this may sound like the worst love story in history, I believe Henry was moved to execute her because, as they say, the line between love and hate is thin. You can’t hate someone that much if you didn’t love them first. Besides, when was the last time a man started a new religion for you?

— Christine Sisto is an editorial associate at National Review.

 

Karen Swallow Prior

My favorite love story is a perennial favorite: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The compelling love story of poor, plain Jane and the mysterious Mr. Rochester makes this classic an obvious choice.

But the reason Jane Eyre is my favorite love story isn’t only because of Jane and Rochester. It’s because of all Jane learns about other kinds of love in the story, not just the romantic  kind.

As an orphan subjected to cruel treatment by her aunt and cousins and then by a charity school master, Jane learns in lacking it how essential love is to human flourishing. As she eventually receives the love of a friend, a teacher, family, and, yes, Mr. Rochester, she learns, too, how important self-love is to both receiving love and giving it. As I explain in my book, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Jane’s true love for herself is rooted in her love of God and his law. To betray God, therefore, would be to betray herself. Tempted to take Rochester on his terms rather than hers, Jane sees the error she would make in doing so:.

My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between me and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for His creature: of whom I had made an idol.

But she cannot, will not, share love with Rochester until their love can be sanctioned by God. Jane chooses being true to her beliefs rather than love — and in so doing, she finds love that is lasting and real. It’s not a fairy-tale ending. But I love the book all the more for that.

— Karen Swallow Prior is o professor of English at Liberty University and author of Fierce Convictions, about the life of Hannah More.

 

Jay Richards

My favorite love story, hands down, is the story immortalized in the beloved 1965 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music.

Maria, played by Julie Andrews, is assigned by her convent as a governess to a widower, retired Austrian naval Captain Georg von Trapp, played by Christopher Plummer, and his seven troublesome children. I don’t need to recount the story. Is there anyone who hasn’t seen this movie at least once? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it at least 30 times. (In fact, I obsessed over it and the soundtrack as a small child. One night I misplaced the LP with the soundtrack, and cried so hard that my parents turned the house upside down to find it.)

Only as an adult did I learn that the movie is based loosely on a book written in 1949 by the real Maria von Trapp. (The family ultimately settled in Vermont.)

But the movie is a thing in itself. I fear that to analyze why it’s my favorite love story would be to diminish it, like killing to golden goose to get the golden eggs. But I think it has something to do with the way Maria reintroduces motherly love to a family that has lost it, and that love, symbolized by music, civilizes, humanizes and ultimately emboldens not only the children, but Captain von Trapp himself.

— Jay Richards is executive editor of The Stream, and assistant research professor in the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America.

 

Benjamin Weinthal

Having just re-watched the 1950 film Cyrano de Bergerac played by the brilliant José Ferrer, I am still moved by its hyper-romantic language. The movie tells the tale of Cyrano, an intellectual swordsman with an extremely large nose, who falls incurably in love with Roxane. It is, however, a case of unrequited love.

While it may seem counterintuitive, Cyrano’s saga captures some of the meaning of Valentine’s Day. He attaches great importance to devotion, friendship, compassion, and cultivating potential.

He famously goes to great lengths to impart witty, passionate speeches to Christian — the man Roxane loves — in the hope that the tongue-tied soldier can solidify his relationship with her.

Cyrano, like the magnificent sniper Chris Kyle, is the kind of person one can count on in battle, as a friend and husband. He seems indifferent to pain but grasps the entire spectrum of human emotions.

“All our souls are written in our eyes,” says Cyrano — in a reference to empathy. Happy Valentine’s Day.

— Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter at @BenWeinthal

Charmaine Yoest

All the classic fairy-tale love stories end with Happily Ever After. But I have had the great blessing of living my entire life within the frame of an ever-after. Where most love stories end, my own life began . . . I grew up inside the accumulating chapters. 

I could tell the tale of my parents’  first meeting. I’ve heard it so many times it’s etched on my consciousness as if I were there. If this were Cinderella, or The Swan Princess . . . we would focus on them young, charmed and idealistic. The beautiful princess wearing pointy-toed high heels and elegant pencil skirts with sweater sets, pursued by her prince who drove a cool convertible and beat out countless other suitors.

But when I think of their love story I think more of the Ever After. I was witness to its ebbs and flows.  Sometimes Happy. Sometimes Not. Because that’s real life. Not fairy tale. I think of the quiet low-drama of my parents holding hands.  Because they always do. Him getting her door. Her leaning into him. Fifty years of every color in the spectrum, of an unshakeable connection between the two of them.

“Happily ever after” depends on where you end the story. “Ever after” is where the passion of first encounter deepens and real love begins. It’s when the prince trades his convertible for a station wagon that he can pile kids and a dog into and drive them from coast to coast, with his adventurous Princess by his side. She didn’t need saving from dragons or evil gnomes; she needed a partner in crime. It didn’t always seem magical, but “happily ever after” isn’t an end point, it’s a way of life.

Their love story is the triumph of two together through toil and trouble. The triumph of true love. I know it exists in real life, because I’ve seen it lived. Happily ever after.

— Charmaine Yoest is president of Americans United for Life.

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