I have been inspired this week to look at famous couples in literature, after reading comments from JK Rowling about Ron and Hermione being a bad pairing, and then looking at other bad literary partnerships. I thought it only fair, then, to also explore some of the best love stories in literature, and it seems quite an apt time to do so, with it being Valentine’s Day later this week. There are many lists out there of favourite couples and most memorable love affairs, and many of them tend to be fairly similar. Not that there’s anything wrong with the characters that are typically chosen; they are classic love stories that have stood the test of time. The fact that the ups and downs of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship can still set hearts aflutter 200 years after it was written is a testament to how well it was written. Their road to happiness is peppered with mistakes and misunderstandings, and they do not always know that love is there. But to mirror this obvious choice I would also choose another, less prominent Austen example – Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon of Sense and Sensibility. Brandon falls in love with Marianne almost immediately, and is prepared to let her go when it becomes clear she has fallen in love with someone else. He is patient with her as she slowly begins to realise the error of her ways, and their love develops slowly, as she forgets about her earlier infatuation.
Another classic is, of course, Romeo and Juliet. But again I would perhaps go for the less obvious (and less tragic) choice from the selection that Shakespeare provides, because my favourite couple of his is Benedik and Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing. They both loudly declare their disdain for love and for each other – “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me” – and the play is centred around their playful and witty banter. It is only when their friends play a trick on them that they realise their teasing could actually have developed into love – both are happy to think they are the subject of the others affection.
The Bronte sisters provide two staple couples to add to the classics list, and I would find it difficult to choose a favourite from between them if pressed. The passionate words used by Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights never fail to sweep me off my feet: “Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I can not live without my life! I can not live without my soul!” But I love the plain speaking Jane Eyre just as much. Unlike Cathy, she takes nothing for granted. She sees something good and loving in the brash and cold Rochester; something that he could never see himself.
“I have for the first time found what I can truly love–I have found you. You are my sympathy–my better self–my good angel–I am bound to you with a strong attachment. I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wrap my existence about you–and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.”
Classics aside, there are several more contemporary (and a little bit alternative) examples that make my own personal list. There are so many, in fact, that I will name just a few. I love the romance between Pelagia and Corelli in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, with love growing between them despite the initial hatred; despite the fact they are on opposing sides as conflict rages all around them. But this book also features the beautiful and tragic story of unrequited (and undeclared) love that Carlo harbours for his fellow soldier Francesco. Carlo keeps his sexuality a secret for fear of the disgust he is sure everyone else will feel if they knew, but the love he feels for Francesco is so pure, so not sordid, not mere lust, it makes the reader feel the injustice of his secret even more.
Some of my other favourite novels provide love stories that make my list. The complex relationship between Clare and Henry in The Time Travellers Wife provides an interesting setting for love to blossom – their pasts and their future are woven together by Henry’s ability to jump through time, which ultimately means they meet and fall for each other twice (you would have to read it to understand how). I also love the gradual development of the bond between Lyra and Will in the His Dark Materials trilogy. They may be young, but do not lack life experience, literally travelling through different worlds and even to the afterlife and back together, forging an unbreakable bond in the process.
And finally, my two wild cards, ones I haven’t seen on any other lists and that don’t come from books written as romance novels. Firstly, the relationship between Takeo and Kaede in Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori series really stood out for me – in the first book, their love seems almost childish, and you could be fooled into thinking they could easily just forget about each other, but as the series progresses, the reader really gets pulled into their world, in which they only have eyes for each other.
And finally another fantasy tale that I really enjoyed, with an argumentative couple who are forced together when those in charge turn against them. Graceling, by Kristin Cashore, tells the story of Katsa and Po, and they fall in love while on a dangerous journey to oust a tyrannical King. Swift and predictable, yes, but with a little twist at the end it is a surprisingly enjoyable and touching romance.
There are many more, too many to mention. Who are your favourite literary couples?