While writers often excel at articulating love and romance, their own records in this area are often rather more patchy. But with Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, let’s consider who from the literary canon would make good and bad romantic partners...
The good ones
Most of us, I imagine, have read the naughty bits of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and been slightly disappointed—especially in these days of Fifty Shades of Grey, and the stuffed-with-gay-sex The Line of Beauty winning the Booker Prize.
But Lawrence’s works still have a remarkable physicality to them, a sensuousness unusual in English literature, suggesting a man at ease in his own skin and with his own desires. (Such as the, ahem, male wrestling scene in Women In Love).
After Lawrence nabbed the wife of a professor from the University of Nottingham, Frieda Weekely (née von Richthofen), which caused no end of problems during the First World War, he rapidly became alienated from literary London and pursued “a savage enough pilgrimage”, restlessly moving from Australia to Italy to Mexico, and died at the age of just 45. Bert Lawrence, like many writers, would never be a stable or reliable husband, but what an exciting partner he would make.
Joyce too wasn’t perhaps a great husband: he was a shameless sponger of money, he often drank too much, and he dragged his family from Trieste to Paris to Rome to Zurich. The oldest of his family, he induced his brother Stanislaus and his sisters Eva and Eileen to also leave Dublin to help keep him solvent and to look after his family.
But as a lover Joyce was both unusual and unparalleled. His letters to wife Norah Barnacle are notoriously kinky, with Joyce’s masochism to the fore (in one instance writing that he would like her to fart in his face, in another that he would like to be flogged by her).
But his most romantic (and long-lasting) avowal is his setting of Ulysses—a novel that famously takes place on one day—on June 16, 1904, in commemoration of the date of their first assignation. With “Bloomsday” now celebrated globally, perhaps no other literary romantic gesture has left such a mark around the world.
There’s something slightly mocking in the subtitle of Oscar Wilde’s drama Lady Windermere’s Fan, “A Play About A Good Woman.” Goodness wasn’t what interested Wilde. (He once joked that he and his mother had founded a “Society To Suppress Virtue”).
But with her large-scale charitable works, parental protectiveness, and obvious humanity and empathy, who would doubt that J K Rowling is indeed a good woman? And what better sort of person could there be for a partner? Plus, if you fancied dressing up as Hagrid or Hermione (according to preference), she could give the perfect critique.
The bad ones
A famous tightwad and ascetic, Larkin also suffered—if that’s the right word—a deeply tangled private life. His partner Monica Jones he kept at arm’s length lecturing in Leicester while he was librarian at the University of Hull.
Meanwhile he pursued an affair with one of the library’s staff, Maeve Brennan. Not content with that, he later had a sexual relationship with his “loaf-haired” secretary, Betty Mackereth, after she had worked for him for 20 years.
He also viciously mocked his first girlfriend to his lifelong pal Kingsley Amis, referring to her as “the school captain” and other derisive appellations. While Larkin’s poems thrum with feeling, there’s a sense that—like in his love-life—he wanted to keep it all for himself.
Very little is known about Emily, unlike her sister Charlotte (thanks to Elizabeth Gaskell’s fine biography). She published one novel, Wuthering Heights, as well as a book of poetry with her sisters, and died at the age of just 30 from tuberculosis.
But from Wuthering Heights you can infer all sorts of grim passions and brutal feelings. No novel I’ve ever read has captured the same sense of gothic power, of the elemental ferocity of nature. Something, somewhere, had evidently deeply stirred her. So how could you ever be a partner to Emily Brontë? You’d feel that she was always keeping an eye out for Heathcliff, out there on the moors.
Ginsberg ought to be ideal partner material. He travelled very widely, knew everyone, and both espoused free love and had a long-term partner, the poet Peter Orlovsky. He appeared in Bob Dylan’s video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and was crowned “King of May” in Prague. His poetry is remarkably unembarrassed and rich with all the passions. What a catch he would be.
But there’s also the fact that Ginsberg was a supporter and member of NAMBLA—the North American Man-Boy Love Association. Now, I know that the age of consent has shifted over time (Juliet was just 13 when Romeo came a-wooing, for example), and that pederastic relationships were practised in Ancient Greece, for example. But frankly it’s still just rather ick.
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