Top Ten Love Stories from Fiction & Literature

Love is in the air! Last Valentine’s Day, I went full on ‘Galentines’ with my circle of ‘mum friends’ and we attended an Audrey Hepburn themed Bingo night. I had just night-weaned and was celebrating my independence. This year, my toddler and I baked heart shaped brownies and then we made Valentine cards and decorated some foam hearts and stuck them up around the house. Boy Who Reads Not A Lot and I ordered a pizza and watched Blade Runner. Our world has shrunk to our little team of three so I am very grateful for where we are.

It’s funny looking back on the various bloggical (is that a word – maybe I’ve just invented something) responses that I have had to True Love over the past ten years. I’ve done Top Ten Romantic Lines in fiction. I’ve done Top Ten Fictional Couples. I’ve done Dysfunctional Couples. Twice. But the last time I did any of those topics was about five years ago. Reading the them feels like reading someone else’s words. So I decided to have a think again about the fictional love stories that have stuck in my head because right now the world needs more love.

Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp-Randall-Fraser, Outlander

I started reading the first Outlander book in the spirit of dipping my toe in the water and … well … suddenly it was a full-on deep dive. I’m mid-way through Book 8 and wondering vaguely what I’ll do when I hit Droughtlander. Oh dear. As long as you’re not in the market for historical accuracy, this series is a lot of fun. What I love most though is that it feels almost unique in depicting a love story across several decades. In Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, Jamie and Claire have known each other over thirty years although admittedly the twenty year separation remains an awful kick in the stomach. It’s nice seeing a story centred around a love that is long-lasting rather than pausing at the ‘Then they lived happily ever after’ point. Recently I read a section where Claire experienced a momentary worry whether Jamie would forgive her their latest calamity and then she shook herself and remembered that after everything they had been through, of course he would. In honesty, I think that ‘happily ever after’ would bore this pair rigid, but there is something wonderful that you really can believe that they will overcome all obstacles.

 

Agnes Grey and Edward Weston, Agnes Grey

I feel like I am the only person in the whole world who ships these two. Firstly because I don’t actually know anyone who has ever read Agnes Grey. Side note: you should. But also, neither of them  make the passionate speeches that people tend to expect from Brontë characters. So what am I really rooting for here? Easy. They’re just good people who care about each other and that’s right from the beginning. Edward Weston never falls for Rosalie Murray even for a second. He just sees Agnes. Even when she’s being shy and awkward, he doesn’t let it bother him. He picks her primroses and insists that she takes the umbrella and he buys the dog she loved and then he asks her mother’s permission to propose because this is an Anne Brontë novel and so her romantic hero was a feminist. Forget your Rochesters and Heathcliffs – ladies, marry men like Edward Weston.

 

Margaret Hale and John Thornton, North and South

So North and South is just Pride and Prejudice but Northern which makes this pair an updated version of the Darcys. But if I’m honest, I prefer them. While I am fond of Mr Darcy, the arrogant side of him is undeniable. John Thornton is without a doubt the better man. Where Darcy sneered that Elizabeth was ‘tolerable’ and later works himself up to ‘in vain I have struggled’, Thornton would never be so rude. And he even comes out with this belter of a speech about the woman he loves:

….whenever I exult in existence henceforward, I may say to myself, “All this gladness in life, all honest pride in doing my work in the world, all this keen sense of being, I owe to her!” And it doubles the gladness, it makes the pride glow, it sharpens the sense of existence till I hardly know if it is pain or pleasure, to think that I owe it to one–nay, you must, you shall hear–to one whom I love, as I do not believe man ever loved woman before.

And then when she says no, he vows to leave her be. There is both real passion and true respect. Gosh – I need to read this again! Swoon!

 

Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt

I’m taking this as an opportunity to give my regular reminder that John of Gaunt was Hot. Like really hot. And of course his love story changed history – he had an affair with his daughters’ governess the widowed Katherine Swynford and the pair of them had four children together. Later in life when he was himself widowed, John of Gaunt was finally able to marry the woman he loved. It’s so easy to rationalise history down into the whys and the wherefores of political machinations so it’s nice to see instances like this where things happened because two people loved each other and kept coming back to one another even when the odds were against them.

 

Polly Cazalet and Gerald Fakenham, The Cazalet Chronicles

I love The Cazalets but there is an over-arching theme of unhappy marriages. Villy and Edward, the agony of Hugh and Sybil’s lack of communication, Rupert and Zoe, the way that Rachel and Sid never get to actually be together. You get the picture. The books are spectacular but all of them are so discontented. Even as the emphasis shifts to the next generation, there is the misery of Louise’s ill-advised marriage and Clary’s ghastly affair. Even foolish Teddy is miserable. So the one ray of sunshine amongst it all is Polly who finds – happiness! With a nice boy! Who has a big house that she is going to be able to decorate! Joy of joys! I think of Cazalets as a quartet and try to pretend that All Change never happened but I did enjoy that one snippet from the otherwise best forgotten fifth volume that Polly and Gerald were still deeply in love. That Polly had expected the feeling to fade to mere fondness but it never did. I love a good love story that has zero complications.

 

Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, Normal People

From the zero complications of the previous entry to these two who are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. I don’t believe that they worked it out in the end. But I do believe that they loved each other. And I like that Sally Rooney has found a way to celebrate those relationships which you mess up and get wrong. It may be firmly in the past and it may be over for a reason but it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t real love. It was.

 

Anne Elliott and Captain Frederick Wentworth, Persuasion

I have probably picked these two on every single romance-related list that I have ever written but I don’t even care. They are just fantastic. I have argued before and at length that Austen did not write love stories … except for this one time in Persuasion when she did. It’s another scorcher of a declaration:

I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.

I have loved none but you. One of the many, many, many things that I love about Jane Austen is that she allows her male leads to be just as emotional as her females. But this is no run-of-the-mill ‘I love you’ or ‘I can’t live without you’. This is two people who have known each other a long time and are finding their way back to each other. The reader’s heart soars at their happiness. Incidentally, while I’m pretty excited about another adaptation being in the works and I think it can only be an improvement on the 2007 attempt, for me it’s always going to be Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root.

 

Mary Thorne and Frank Gresham, Dr Thorne

This is a true Cinderella story and I remember it as such a lovely read. It is really rare for me to read a female character created by a male Victorian author who I don’t find impossibly irritating. So Mary Thorne is really very special. And I loved how the love was established between these two by Frank holding Mary’s hand for a couple of seconds longer than necessary. And then he seals the deal a year later by putting his fingers through hers. They are separated, Frank is ordered to marry someone else with more money but yet he stands firm. If you are going to take up with a Trollope, let it be Dr Thorne. Also – while I am linking my review of this book here, I would add as a disclaimer that I wrote it in my first year of blogging before I’d really learned how to talk about a plot without epic spoilers. So beware.

Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw, Middlemarch

The world wasn’t ready for Dorothea Brooke. She had a mission and yet she was never able to fulfil it. I find her character arc utterly fascinating. If anyone in the book is Dorothea’s soulmate, it is almost certainly Tertius Lydgate. Yet the two of them never get near each other. Dorothea makes a disastrous first marriage and shortly afterwards experiences an attraction towards her husband’s cousin, Will Ladislaw. Everyone knows that Dorothea could do ‘better’. And yet when the time comes, the two of them make it work. Because although there might have been other men who Dorothea could have had more of a connection to philosophically or spiritually, Middlemarch is a book about real life. And sometimes the bloke who is actually there and who actually loves you is the one with whom you make a life. To be honest, this article, “Middlemarch is a Sexy Novel All About Sex” says it far better than I ever could. I particularly like the line, ‘Dorothea getting laid is a victory for all of us’. Preach it.

Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone, Shirley

I never really gave the queer theories around Charlotte Brontë a lot of thought until I read Shirley. If you haven’t read it … it’s weird. It’s all over the place in terms of plot, it starts off in one place, wanders off to another, picks up some passengers, forgets about them and then winds up somewhere completely different. Chaotic. Messy. But there is a wonderful central love story. It’s just not between any of the people who actually end up married. Caroline Helstone is the idealised Victorian heroine. Shirley Keeldar is a rich and independent heiress who  is completely done with men and their patriarchal b******t. They are great, great friends. They finish the novel wed to a pair of brothers who are amongst the least convincing romantic leads in the whole of the literary canon. As the novel drew to a close, I had the distinct feeling that Caroline and Shirley just might have been playing a long game. And that Charlotte Brontë just may have given us an early example of a lesbian love story where people actually live happily ever after. I really hope that these ladies did.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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14 thoughts on “Top Ten Love Stories from Fiction & Literature

  1. Agnes and Edward are literally my favourite Bronte couple, it’s so lovely to hear someone else talk about them! I love Agnes Grey; it’s my favourite Bronte novel and it doesn’t get enough love, which doesn’t seem fair when it’s commentary on how unfair life is for women from all social standings is so very good.

    I love Anne and Wentworth and Margaret and John, too.

    1. Amazing to find another Agnes fan! I think that this list definitely made me realise how much I value the couples in fiction who just … make it work. No drama. I think most Bronte fans are in it for the ‘I AM Heathcliff’ style declarations but in real life? We all just want an Edward Weston. And he is LOVELY!
      And you’re absolutely right that it’s an incredible commentary on the position of women. Makes me so angry that Anne gets so little love.

    1. Tbh once I clicked to the two of them the whole book got a LOT more interesting. I loved Shirley Keeldar, I can’t accept that she would have ever married Louis the Drip let alone put him in charge. I prefer to think of it as a ruse to disguise her relationship with Caroline.

  2. I’m a bit late to this post, but better late than never! You have some really excellent suggestions in here, and choices that I’d quite forgotten about but whole-heartedly agree with — Shirley, Middlemarch, Persuasion, North and South are some of my favorites. I hadn’t heard of Cazalets before, nor do I remember John of Gaunt coming up in a specific book (do you have any recs for that?), so thanks for spotlighting them!

    1. John of Gaunt is seriously the hottest guy in history … literally. I read Anne O’Brien’s The Scandalous Duchess which has him in it but his most famous fictional incarnation is in Anya Seton’s Katherine. But I actually think he’s pretty hot in Alison Weir’s biography of Katherine Swynford too so it kind of depends on what you’re into. I lived in Lancaster for a year about a decade ago and I more or less picked my favourite pub because it was called ‘The John O’Gaunt’ despite the fact that there were definitely better pubs in the area. So basically … I have a problem.

      The Cazalets is a good series too though as long as you skip book 5 (author was in her 90s when she wrote it, we let her off it being a disappointment)

  3. Based on the tenor of earlier entries I was fully expecting to see “Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, Middlemarch” …

    Except you did include Middlemarch but for another couple! Were you tempted at all to include Fred and Mary, who grey-haired hold hands in old age as Lydgate publishes one work on Gout?

    1. I adore Mary Garth, she is one of the best fictional heroines ever. I do think she could have done better than Fred Vincy though, bless him. I love their pairing too but I love the way that Eliot skewers the Victorian notion of the ‘child wife’ with the borderline celibate marriage and just pairs Dorothea off with someone she’s actually attracted to. It’s revolutionary within Victorian literature so I could only applaud. You are quite correct though that the Garth/Vincy pairing belonged on this list … strangely won’t be considering Rosamund and Tertius however!

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