Fiction » Classic English Literature

The Best Love Stories

recommended by Jenny Davidson

Interview by Eve Gerber

From Jane Austen to James Baldwin, the best love stories in literature recommended by Jenny Davidson, novelist, historian and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

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Jenny Davidson

Jenny Davidson is an American historian and writer who writes about 18th-century literature, etiquette and culture. She is currently a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is the author of four novels, Heredity (2003), The Explosionist (2008), Invisible Things (2010), and The Magic Circle (2013). She has published two books about eighteenth-century literature, Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen (Cambridge, 2004) and Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century (Columbia, 2009). Her latest books are Reading Style: A Life in Sentences (2014) and Reading Jane Austen (2017). Find her on Twitter @triaspirational and on her blog, Light Reading.

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What makes a story a love story by your lights?

Love is a central topic for many if not most novels. In naming these five, I was thinking of love in the narrower sense: love between two individuals that’s romantic in character. That said, one of the books on my list is a love story in many different ways—it’s about love between siblings, between friends and between lovers.

You’ve written four novels yourself. Are any of them love stories?

Two of my novels have elements of a love story in them. But the female protagonist is 16 years old, so it’s really a love story between two children.

Philosopher Ronald de Sousa posits that our emotional lives are encoded by the culture in which we’re immersed, particularly the stories that we consume. In his view, love stories lead to ideation about love. I don’t know if you think this theory holds, but as we go through the novels, I’d like your idea of how they inform readers’ understanding of love. Your first choice is Persuasion by Jane Austen.

Persuasion is an unusually brilliant novel, just in terms of its style of narration. Out of all of the novels Austen published in her short life, this one feels most to me like a real love story.

It tells a story set years after an initial period that’s looked back on retrospectively, in which the protagonist, Anne Elliot, turned down a marriage proposal from Frederick Wentworth, a man who genuinely loved her. A close family member had advised her not to marry him on the grounds that his social class was not up to snuff. It was a difficult decision at the time; she genuinely loved him. What’s more, the advice to wait for a more suitable suitor led to disappointment: Anne received no more marriage proposals. The novel describes a new encounter between these two characters and the set of misunderstandings that they have to go through before they unite at the end of the novel.

How does Persuasion shape the ideation of love for its readers?

Pride and Prejudice may be more widely regarded as Austen’s most romantic novel. Of all Austen’s romantic heroes, Mr. Darcy is the one whose mold is most often followed. In the modern Regency romances we often have a gruff, superior-seeming man, a very handsome and very rich man, who turns out to appreciate the heroine’s hidden qualities. That dynamic, which Austen deployed in Pride and Prejudice, has always struck me as having too much wish-fulfillment to ring true.

“Out of all of the novels Austen published in her short life, this one feels most to me like a real love story”

Whereas in Persuasion, we are in a world that has a huge amount of emotional nuance, a world where bad decisions are foregrounded as things that a character might have to weather to find their best possible partner. Persuasion teaches us that love can be the end of a long road paved with regrets.

Next you’ve named one of the most sensationally popular plays of all time: Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.

The love story that is told in Cyrano, with its bittersweet, heartbreaking ending, is one of the most powerful I’ve ever encountered. The eponymous character is an incredibly intelligent and funny man who has the misfortune of having an extraordinarily hideous nose—a nose that is so prominent and so unattractive that it is hard for anybody around him to take him seriously. He’s in love with his beautiful cousin, Roxane, whose eye is captured by a young man who, like Cyrano, is a cadet in the French army. This young man, Christian, is remarkably handsome but not at all eloquent. Christian enlists Cyrano’s help in wooing Roxane with words, by writing his love letters. The play is the story of a three-way love affair. Roxane thinks that she is being courted by Christian, but the words that enrapture her have all been composed by Cyrano.

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Yes, this is a completely sentimental 19th-century play; it’s really over the top. After the passage of fifteen years, years during which Roxane has pined for Christian, Cyrano is dying. Too late, Roxane realizes that it is Cyrano’s words she loved, and she declares her love to him. Cyrano is too delirious to hear but Rostand concludes with a memorable redemptive detail. Cyrano always prided himself on a white feather, his panache. He retains this white feather flourish. ‘Panache’ is his dying word, and the last word of Rostand’s play.

Cyrano continues to live on in Hollywood productions, on school stages, in literary re-imaginings and even as slang. To ‘Cyrano’ is to set-up, ‘cyber Cyrano’ is to write a friend’s dating profile. What makes this story so enduring?

Many of our modern myths were created during the last decades of the 19th century. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde dates to that era, the story of two personalities in a single body and a monster within unleashed. The period also gave birth to Sherlock Holmes, a character with superior powers of discernment and detection who solves crimes using scientific techniques so effective as to seem almost preternatural to those around them. Certain popular storytellers in that era (Bram Stoker’s Dracula is another) boiled narratives down to their absolute essentials. These characters had creators who were unafraid to think schematically and structurally and give their protagonists near-mystical powers.

Rostand’s Cyrano, the character and the play’s plot, are so brilliant that emulation is inevitable. In Cyrano, the main character in whom we’re emotionally invested is forced into the position of bystander rather than participant: he’s assigned a minor role in the courtship as Roxane understands it, but assumes his true central place in the story for those of us watching. The brilliance and ingenuity of that story structure captivated audiences in the nineteenth century; it should be no wonder that it always stayed with us.

Just Above My Head by James Baldwin isn’t just about romantic love. As you already mentioned, it involves multifarious forms of love. Tell us about it.

This is my favorite novel by James Baldwin; it was his last one, published in 1979. You don’t hear as much about it as you do about his early novels. I’ve always been a bit grumpy that Another Country and Giovanni’s Room get so much more attention. It’s probably because, as memories of the heyday of the civil rights movement faded, Baldwin was no longer considered by many as in touch with the central voice of the culture. Maybe his positions were too complex for his novels to fit popular tastes.

“Baldwin shows us that one can repair oneself with love”

The novel’s set-up involves the main character (also the narrator) telling the story of his beloved and charismatic young brother Arthur, who is gay and has a glow about him that, together with his remarkable musical talents, enables an enormous career as a singer. It’s an amazing story about the way that siblings retain love for each other in a world that puts that love to the test in many ways. It’s also about the beauty of sexual love between two black men, Arthur and his onetime bandmate Crunch. It’s a lovely novel, but also a pretty dark one. One of the main characters is sexually abused by her father at a young age, but all the characters have been damaged by abuses and societal pressures in ways that you might think are irreparable. Baldwin shows us that one can repair oneself with love.

Do love stories serve as a leavening agent for sociological stories?

Love stories often raise issues of social class and wealth. Love stories often involve disparities, whether it’s beauty and the beast or princess and pauper. The title on my list that really interestingly exemplifies this is A True Novel.

Let’s move on to Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel then.

Mizumura does something absolutely brilliant; she bases A True Novel on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel about class prejudice and the way that sexuality can be used to gain power in the world. The world of romantic passion that Wuthering Heights presents is quite dark, and the same can be said of the world created by Mizumura. She transplants Brontë’s plot to 20th-century Japan.

It’s a story of an upper-class young woman who loves and is beloved by a man who is beneath her socially. The story gets started just after World War Two. The Heathcliff equivalent in the novel is a sort of stepchild. He is an outcast within the family he lives with and an outcast within society at large because he’s not pure Japanese; his father was Manchurian Chinese. The love story starts as one between a girl and boy, and it grows as they grow up.

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In explaining to the reader how these characters relate to one another, Mizamura is never writing about it as a strictly personal interaction. She details how socioeconomic changes in Japan in the post-war years—the relative status of the different families in the novel and the changes in Japan’s status around the world—shape the fate of her characters and the dynamic between them.

So, in literature, love is leavening, love is catalyst, love is catnip. How else does love animate literature?

Love is also the source of a great deal of comedy, a form that traditionally ends with the coming together of two people in marriage. Shakespeare’s comedies, As You Like It for instance, often end with the joining together that marriage represents. Love is often literature’s resolution to all kinds of conflicts. It’s a satisfying pattern for the human mind to follow.

“Love is often literature’s resolution to all kinds of conflicts. It’s a satisfying pattern for the human mind to follow”

That said, when we think of the truly greatest love stories, an awful lot of them are tragic. There are so many stories of impossible loves wherein some poison acts from outside to destroy romantic pairings. We like the satisfactions of romantic comedy, but we are maybe even more drawn to the stories of doomed love that we get in Othello, Anna Karenina and many of the other works that jump to mind when we think of love stories.

Finally, you named a work of fantasy written for young readers. How does Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, fit into the rubric?

Diana Wynne Jones is a really underrated novelist, perhaps because she is most popular among children and people of all ages who read children’s literature.

Young adult books often cut to the heart of human relationships. Literature for young people sometimes simplifies things by making them metaphorical, by moving them into a fairy-tale world. That often means YA stories give us some of the most profound stories of human relationships. Howl’s Moving Castle is a story of this caliber.

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It both hews to and subverts the conventions of fairy tales. Our main character, Sophie, is the oldest of three daughters. She systematically underrates herself: in a fairy-tale world, it’s only the youngest daughter who gets to have interesting adventures. Very early in the book, she encounters a wicked witch who transforms her into an old lady. This transformation literalizes her feelings of worthlessness. Mortified, she hides from her family and finds a new home in the castle of the title. Its proprietor, Howl, is charming and brilliant, but also bad-tempered and apt to regard young women he encounters as disposable love objects.

The fact that Sophie inhabits an old woman’s body allows him to see her true self. It follows the fairy-tale pattern of magical disguise or false appearance providing a window into people’s essential self, beyond the outer level of appearances. Sophie’s terrible transformation also frees her to become her true self, to speak out and have adventures and do all the things she’s ruled out for herself up to that time.

What makes it fit so well in the category of love story is that the relationship between these two imperfect characters leads both characters to become their best (or at least better) selves.

Although many mistake Valentine’s Day for a faux-holiday manufactured for modern mass consumption, it’s been a day for literary expressions of love for centuries. I recently stumbled across Ophelia’s pre-Valentine’s Day anxiety: “Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day / And early in the morning / I’m a girl below your window / Waiting to be your Valentine” (Hamlet 4.5.31–34). Is there a more literary holiday?

A former student, now an editor at Time, recently emailed to ask what I might know about the 17th-century practice of assigning valentines by lot, in other words, names pulled out of a hat. Although I’m not expert on the folk history of Valentine’s Day, I would say that All Hallows’ Eve and Christmas are more widely present in literature than Valentine’s Day.

The love story, whether it’s one of the great romantic tragedies or a comedy that ends happily, is one of the three or four most popular patterns for plots (crime and coming-of-age are two other obvious ones). The tristesse inherent in many of these stories is captured best for me by the philosophy of love attributed to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. The premise is that gods cleaved in half two-parted humans (some male-male, some female-female, some female-male—listen to Stephen Trask’s “The Origin of Love” for a magical reinterpretation of the concept), leaving us often to spend a whole life in search of that missing other half, with the hope that we can restore ourselves to that elusive feeling of wholeness when we achieve true love.

Interview by Eve Gerber

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Jenny Davidson

Jenny Davidson is an American historian and writer who writes about 18th-century literature, etiquette and culture. She is currently a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is the author of four novels, Heredity (2003), The Explosionist (2008), Invisible Things (2010), and The Magic Circle (2013). She has published two books about eighteenth-century literature, Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen (Cambridge, 2004) and Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century (Columbia, 2009). Her latest books are Reading Style: A Life in Sentences (2014) and Reading Jane Austen (2017). Find her on Twitter @triaspirational and on her blog, Light Reading.