It's one month until Valentine's Day! And while, of all the holidays we currently celebrate, Valentine's Day is the one for which candy companies can be held most responsible, it's still a rather pleasant holiday, barring the gooier aspects, and an excellent excuse to eat chocolate. It's also a perfect excuse to read some great romantic literature.
The Letters of Abelard and Heloise
The torrid love affair of Abelard and Heloise, which culminated in a love child and the forced castration of Abelard, is recorded in their letters, written after they had become a monk and an abbess, as well as two of the most distinguished and esteemed scholars of their time. Inextricably bound up in medieval theology, their reflections on love, lust, and chastity are erudite, ardent, and impassioned.
Persuasion - Jane Austen
The most unabashedly romantic of Austen's novels is Persuasion, the last novel she would complete before her death. Anne Elliot, the daughter of a baronet, has been persuaded to reject the man she loves, a young naval officer, because he is not of the same social rank. Eight years later, he returns, now a wealthy captain, but still embittered by Anne's rejection. Austen brilliantly delivers both a romantic story and a biting social critique, averring that women are as constant and rational as men.
Sonnets from the Portuguese - Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Originally written as a private document of Barrett Browning's growing affection for her lover and eventual husband, Robert Browning, this sonnet cycle ranks with those of Shakespeare and Petrarch. Including the much beloved, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways, " these 44 love sonnets are justly renowned for the sheer beauty of their language, but are also cherished as some of the most genuine and moving of all love poems.
Camille - Alexandre Dumas, fils
Marguerite Gautier is a beautiful and consumptive Parisian courtesan who entrances the naive Armand Duval, but their romance is abruptly interrupted when Armand's father appears, appealing to Marguerite's better nature, to sever what he views as a financially and socially damaging relationship. This heartbreaking tragedy is the basis for Giuseppe Verdi's great opera, La traviata, as well as one of Greta Garbo's best films.
A Room with a View - E.M. Forster
Like Persuasion, this novel is both a romance and a social critique, and by far, Forster's most optimistic literary outing. Lucy Honeychurch is a prim young woman on holiday in Florence with her tight-laced chaperone, Miss Bartlett, who meets George Emerson, an idealistic young man, when his father offers to give them their room with a view. For Forster, Italy is almost a fairy kingdom, where passionate impulse reigns and sexual longing can be fulfilled, in contrast to the stuffy repression of Edwardian England.
Songs of Love and Grief - Heinrich Heine, trans. Walter W. Arndt
This bilingual anthology of Heine's wonderful and at times ironic or whimsical love poems, many of which have been set to music by great composers like Schubert and Mendelssohn, is a treasure, particularly for those who know enough German to use the translation as a guide rather than a straightforward rendition of Heine's work. Arndt chooses the obscenely difficult challenge of retaining the original metrical and rhythmical form of the poetry, succeeding far more often than he fails.
The Glimpses of the Moon - Edith Wharton
Nick Lansing and Susy Branch love each other and have very little money, but decide to marry each other, enjoy one year of marital bliss, and then divorce if one or both finds someone else who can provide greater social advantages. As sensual as The Age of Innocence, but with a wry sense of humor replacing the more serious social critique of the earlier novel, The Glimpses of the Moon is an erotic comedy of social manners set in 1920s Venice and one of Wharton's most entertaining works.
Flush - Virginia Woolf
One more proof that Virginia Woolf was (and is) a goddess among us, this brilliant and utterly unsentimental novel narrates Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning's famous romance from the perspective of Barrett's spaniel, Flush. Unjustly considered a lesser work, in part because it's written from an animal perspective, Flush is an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness narrative that explores the bonds and separations between beings, whether human or canine, and the at times painful power of affection.