The Great Literary Love Stories

Image credit: Marina Shemesh |

It’s that time of year again. Valentine’s Day – to the undoubted delight of greeting card manufacturers and chocolatiers the world over – is almost upon us. I feel the need to celebrate in some way – and what better way than by delving into a good literary love story?

There are many works of literature out there that deal with love, and why not? It’s about the most intense and universal of human experiences, and many’s the writer who’s been unable to resist its many-splendored lure. In fact, there are so many great love stories out there that I had trouble whittling my original list down to just a few titles – but here are my favourites.

The Remains of the Day

I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.

On the surface, nothing could be more typically British than Kazuo Ishiguro’s reserved butler and the housekeeper who wins his affections. But The Remains of the Day is a highly affecting love story, in which emotion actually gains power through being repressed. The pain of this impossible, lost love is so immense that you almost feel it as your own. It’s a poignant story of what could have been and indeed almost was, and an elegy for an England that has changed almost beyond recognition.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

His statement to himself should have been “I possess this now, therefore I am happy”, instead of what it so Victorianly was: “I cannot possess this forever, therefore I am sad.”

John Fowles’ love story is set against the religious and philosophical upheavals of the Victorian era and viewed from the vantage point of the 1960s, when it was written. Now that the 1960s have themselves taken their place in history, the effect is perhaps even more startling than it would have been at the time. Set in 1867, when Darwinism was slowly crumbling the edifice of traditional Christianity, and in the coastal town of Lyme Regis, where fossils can be easily found by any child with a bucket and spade, the plot revolves around the perilous love that develops between a gentleman of a vaguely scientific bent and the mysterious Sarah Woodruff. Viewed solely as a catalogue of events, a précis of The French Lieutenant’s Woman would sound like a Victorian melodrama, but Fowles’ preoccupation is with the historical and philosophical context in which his story takes place.

The End of the Affair

This is a record of hate far more than of love.

Or so Graham Greene’s protagonist Maurice Bendrix insists at the outset of the book. Remembering his adulterous love affair with Sarah Miles, set against the backdrop of wartime London, Bendrix relives the complexities, nuances, oddities and depths of love – and its selfishness, its insecurities, its darkness. Love and hate are not only coexistent but uncomfortably close: love and hate of self, of another, and of God (or of His nonexistence, depending on your point of view). This passionate love and hate meld with an intense Catholic sensibility to produce a unique, unforgettable novel.

Wuthering Heights

Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

Emily Bronte’s classic is about as far from a conventional romance as can be, even though – oh, the irony! – it’s constantly billed as one of the great romantic novels. The love between Catherine and adopted vagabond Heathcliff is as wild, cruel and long-lasting as the bleak Yorkshire moors against which it is played out. Isolation, small-scale tyranny, the perpetuation of child abuse from generation to generation … like The End of the Affair, this is as much a hate story as a love story.

Madame Bovary

She was the amoureuse of all the novels, the heroine of all the plays, the vague “she” of all the poetry books.

Flaubert takes us inside the mind and turbulent emotions of Emma, a woman whose expectations of romantic fulfilment, gained from the reading of novels, are squandered when she marries a dull provincial doctor. Her attempts to reintroduce excitement into her life through sex and shopping lead her and those around her into a downward spiral of chaos and despair. Emma won’t accept anything less than the ideal – and the more she chases that seductive ideal, the farther into the distance it recedes.

Anna Karenina

I’ve always loved you, and when you love someone, you love the whole person, just as he or she is, and not as you would like them to be.

On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly new about the story of an unfulfilled wife finding first passion, and then tragedy, in an adulterous affair. What makes Tolstoy’s novel stand out is the reality and immediacy of his portrayal of a woman coming undone, of the unravelling of a character under the weight of societal pressure, guilt and insecurity. Anna’s fate is a sad illustration of how getting what we want – or at least what we think we want – isn’t always (or, perhaps, ever) the key to happiness. But herein lies part of the human tragedy – how can we not want that which we want?

The Great Gatsby

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.

Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s protagonist, is on the surface a spoiled, rich product of the crazed era just before the Wall Street Crash. What makes Gatsby different, and gives him both depth and tragic potential, is that his desire to make money, to own the best house and throw the most glittering parties, is actually driven by his love for his old flame Daisy. The capitalist’s ultimate dream may well be to “make it” (whatever that means exactly, and nobody seems quite sure) – but Gatsby, who really has made it, has in a sense built everything on a misplaced dream. The Great Gatsby is a story of how we continue to search for love, even though the perfect love of which we dream always eludes us.

What would your nominations for the perfect Valentine’s Day read be?

6 thoughts on “The Great Literary Love Stories

  1. An excellent post, as ever, Mari. I’ve only read five of those…
    Great choices in ‘The End of the Affair’ and ‘The Remains of the Day’ particularly, though for myself I would call ‘Wuthering Heights’ more of a revenge saga than a love story – except for the tender resolution between the younger generation, Hareton and Cathy. While the story within the story of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte of Helen Huntingdon’s disastrous infatuation with Arthur Huntingdon is written as a warning, it is a very strong account of a young girl’s besotted adoration of an attractive rake and makes fascinating reading as the conventional story with an unhappy ending. I’d nominate that myself.
    I would also nominate – with high unoriginality, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for a drama, and ‘The Blood of Others’ by Simone de Beauvoir as a novel.

    1. Thank you so much for visiting and commenting! Yes, ‘The Remains of the Day’ is stunning – not least because the reserved, quiet tone of the narrator actually manages to intensify the emotion. Glad you enjoyed the list!

  2. Currently abstaining from the whole romance/relationship conundrum, I’m in less celebratory mood than you, perhaps! Nevertheless, it’s a great list, Mari, and who can resist a love story well told? I too love The End of the Affair and The Remains of the Day. I would add The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Love on the Dole. Your own Loving Imogen needs mention here!

    1. Hello Paul, and thanks for commenting. I was actually debating whether to include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I loved. I haven’t actually read Love on the Dole, so I’ll have to search that one out. But you’re too kind: I would never dare to include my own books amongst greats such as these!

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