My first love had a dead wife and a dark secret. Max was followed by a dashing officer, a tad too pretty for his breeches but it wasn’t until Scarlett drove home the point that “tomorrow is another day” that I woke up to the realization that a life without a man could still be worth living.
As much as psychology has rammed into us that our relationship with our parents, especially our fathers for us girls, will define our romantic relationships forever more, I am also convinced that, for precocious readers like me, our first forays into love are very much defined by our first literary encounters. At 16, Count Vronsky made me believe that any relationship worth embarking on had to be tortured (but without the unhappy ending of throwing myself under the train at Tottenham Court Road, further ensnaring the already beleaguered Northern Line). Luckily, I didn’t start on Jane Austen until later in life, or I might have spent my 20’s tracking down the marrying type. George Eliot got to me first and, terrified of ever becoming another Dorothea, I kept marriage well at bay, at least until literature was done influencing my romantic life.
Still, it was all Vronksy’s fault that I kept on falling for difficult or unattainable men – there was no passion to be had with the solid, predictable and brainy Karenin.
In college, it was Fitzgerald who taught me that, behind the pretty boy facade, there is often a straw man to be found. And Hemingway gifted me a long-life dislike for the macho types: to this day, anyone interested in guns, wars, whisky, bull fighting or the sea stands little chance with me. Much more than matinee idols, it was fictional heroes (or losers) who made me swoon and for whom I developed steadfast crushes. And, if the works were translated to films, “my men” never had the faces of the Hollywood actors chosen for the part. Rhett couldn’t be as unctuous as Clark Gable nor could Max de Winter sport Laurence Olivier’s silly mustache.
That works of literature written many decades, and sometimes hundreds of years, before my birth could take hold of a teenager’s imagination with such force, attests to the universal power of words and to how little feelings and emotions have evolved over time, at least in the love department.
As I would rather take life lessons from Tolstoy before resorting to Dr. Phil, “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” are proof of how we, and our notions of love, change over time. Countries have gone through wars and revolutions; women don’t wear corsets nor need they be trapped in unhappy marriages anymore; most men, and not just peasants, now work for a living, and so do their princesses, but we still go through life looking for our perfect love, often blinded by who shines the most – in the end, though, or in later years, we end up with the one we are really suited to be with. Pierre marries Natasha after all and Kitty comes to her senses and falls in love with Levin. And even poor Karenin maybe found a woman who deserved him, after all was said and done. I would like to think that.
Then again, the travails that take place in between, are just as much fun in life as they are on the page. It wasn’t bad to kiss all those Vronskys before getting to my Levin.
Hope you had a good Valentine’s day – away from mass-produced chocolates and wilting roses but close to a good book. Or a good man.