We climb into bed at night with a new novel. We are twenty pages into it when she sees him standing in a forest clearing. At once the page seems to shimmer a little and we snuggle deeper into our pillow, draw the covers up, hiding from all the obligations of our daily world. Two characters have spoken together, looked at each other. Will they meet again?
Hours pass as we turn pages, the night table lamp shining on the words. Suddenly they are arguing or parted by circumstance. We are worried. There are too many obstacles: her parents, his other commitments. “That he has nothing but himself to recommend him!” ― that wonderful rueful phrase in Jane Austen’s Persuasion which parts the lovers for eight sad years.
How long have people been reading love stories? Well, back as far as written history and undoubtedly in oral story telling before that. In Greek mythology, the stricken Orpheus descends into hell to bring back his young wife Eurydice who has died. Perhaps two thousand years ago the great love story Vis and Rāmin was created, though not written down until the 11th century by the Persian poet Asad Gorgani. I had long loved an ancient Egyptian love poem:
Egyptians often married their sisters but never mind that! Note the rising obstacle in the plot development! And a beloved ancient Chinese story of frustrated lovers is Qi Xi (which translates as The Seventh of Night), about lovers allowed to reunite once a year. (Great pathos in that!)
Reading novels easily for pleasure was not possible though until printing was invented and became reasonably cheap. The earliest most popular ones read regularly by most of us are of course the stories of Jane Austen. They have set the mark for reading about love: two people drawn to each other (though they may not know it, in the case of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy) and then having to climb over the endless obstacles.
I am afraid I am a hopeless romantic and even if a novel is about many other interesting things, I must admit a certain increased interest when it seems like something like a love relationship might form. A glance on page 36, a chance meeting on page 74. Set in classical Rome, in Verona, in the court of Louis XIV, or, in my own two latest novels, in 18th century Vienna or the bohemian world of 19th century Paris, love somehow centers the story.
So we are reading in bed by the lamp, turning pages or maybe in these days reading on a Nook or Kindle. Everyone else in our house and our neighborhood has gone to sleep, but we can’t go to sleep until we know that he will come back to her, that they will surmount all difficulties. Even if we have reread the novel many times, we have to continue with it because we just want to make sure. Even though I had reread a certain novel from my adolescence and fell asleep last night towards the end, I managed to wake up enough to read those last pages just because I wanted to make quite sure that once more Jane Eyre really, really married him.
Stephanie Cowell is the author of Claude and Camille, which I will be reviewing tomorrow!