Nicola here, introducing this month’s Ask A Wench which has a Valentine romance theme. When I first asked the Wenches: “What is the best love story you’ve ever read, seen (or written!) and what is it that makes it so good?” there were groans all round and complaints along the lines of “How do you expect us to choose just one?”
Yes, it is a problem narrowing the field down but somehow we’ve managed it and here are our thoughts. And you’d better start thinking about your own favourites too, because at the end of the blog we’ll be putting you on the spot for your recommendations!
Anne here, finding it impossible to choose my "best love story or movie" or even a most romantic scene, because the power of a scene so often depends on context. Instead I am choosing a most romantic letter — the one written by Capt. Wentworth in Jane Austen's Persuasion. It's wonderfully romantic, especially as it's written by a stern-seeming buttoned-down Naval officer.
If you don't know the story, in a nutshell, Wentworth and Anne Elliot fell in love more than eight years ago, but Anne was persuaded by her family to turn down his offer of marriage — hence the title. Her father is a snob and claimed Wentworth wasn't good enough for his daughter. As well, the very selfish father carelessly uses Anne as a general dogsbody, showing her no respect. Now, eight years later, the two are thrown together again, and after some tense and awkward scenes and painful misunderstandings, Capt Wentworth writes Anne this letter.
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever.
I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.
Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others.
Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never.
(Persuasion, Volume 2, Chapter 11)
Again, the power of the letter is enhanced by the context, by the build-up of tension between the two star-crossed lovers, so if you haven't read the novel, or watched the 1995 movie version with Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root, you might not appreciate the context. You can watch the scene here.
Mary Jo: I'm a romance writer. I've read or watched zillions of great romances! I could never pick on that is "the best." That said, I love Anne's choice of Captain Wentworth's letter to Anne Elliott. SWOON! And the film clip, which almost wordlessly shows the declaration of love and commitment between two quiet people who love deeply and truly.
For a wildly romantic film, it's hard to beat Ladyhawke, which is a big favorite with the Wenches. Here is the trailer. It's a wonderful medieval romantic fantasy about a brave knight, Navarre, and his beloved, the exquisitely beautiful Isabeau. A jealous sorcerer casts a spell that transforms Navarre into a wolf by night and Isabeau a hawk by day. Navarre carries his lady hawk on his arm by day and she waits for him by night. Though they can be together, they can never in human form at the same time. There is one heart rending scene where they almost manage to touch at dawn, but fail.
At the end the curse is broken, justice is administered, and Navarre and Isabeau joyously come together. Lovely. Here is a picture of the ending as Navarre sweeps Isabeau into his arms and whirls her around.
For reading, Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles is one of the finest historical sagas ever written. Set in the sixteenth century, the story sweeps across Europe as it follows the adventures of the incredibly complicated, infuriating and mesmerizing Scotsman, Frances Crawford of Lymond. There is an incredible richness of action and historical detail, but one of the most resonant elements comes in the later books: the romance of Lymond and Philippa, which breaks your heart and then mends it again. (Yes, there's a happy ending! I would never recommend any love story that didn't have that!)
Andrea: It’s incredibly hard to pick a favorite love story. There are SO many wonderful books on the elemental magic of falling in love, ranging from lightly humorous to powerfully intense. How can one possibly winnow it down to one?
However . . . I can’t help but choose a timeless classic, because for me, it’s the book that pulled me into the romance genre, even though it’s far more than just a love story. It also just blew me away for its wise and witty observations on human nature. The story resonates on so many levels.
Yes, I’m talking about Pride and Prejudice. Before you roll your eyes and say “too expected,” allow me to explain. What I love about P&P is that feels so real to me. It’s not a love-at-first sight fairy tale romance. Lizzie and Darcy have flaws. They get things wrong. They misinterpret words and actions. They think they know more than they do. In other words, they are so elementally human—we can all relate to their stumblings, their prickliness, their tendency to make judgments. That they have to wrestle with their feelings and admit to mistakes in order to find the path to happiness is such a lovely journey to watch.
I also really like that the theme of love isn’t just for Lizzy and Darcy. Austen shows such a lovely bond of love and friendship between Lizzie and her sister Jane. And to me, the power of love is so slyly emphasized by Austen’s showing the bickering and unhappiness in that goes on among the families and friends around them. Again, such a slice of real life, tartly yet not cruelly depicted on the pages. Pride and Prejudice is a book I never tire of re-reading. And it always makes me smile and let out a fluttery sigh at the end.
Christina: This question really had me stumped, because every year I discover new love stories and whichever is the last one to stand out is the one I like best at that point. At the moment, my latest favourite couple would be Feyre and Rhysand from the A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas. Whether it will stand the test of time, I’m not sure.
One epic love story that has always stuck in my mind, however, is The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye. It kept me spellbound when I first read it and I’ve never forgotten it. Set in India during the British Raj, the hero, Ashton Pelham-Martyn (Ash) is at first raised as an Indian boy after being orphaned. His nanny takes him to live in a palace where he becomes friends with a neglected princess, Anjuli. The two form a bond that really tugs at the reader’s heartstrings, but Ash is forced to flee after he uncovers a conspiracy against the ruler and is himself in danger. He promises he’ll come back for her one day, but is then sent to England to be educated. When he returns many years later, he is an officer in the British Army and has no way of contacting Anjuli. Theirs would be an impossible friendship and even more forbidden love. He feels torn between being British and the native ways he was taught as a boy. He is the ultimate honourable hero who tries to do the right thing for everyone, while having to deny his own feelings, just as Anjuli is the kind of heroine who sacrifices her own happiness for those she loves.
When Ash is sent to escort a royal party to a wedding, he finds that one of the brides is Anjuli and the two reconnect and fall in love as adults. They can’t act on it though, and he has to watch her marry another, which was heart-breaking to read. Eventually, everything is resolved, although there are many obstacles and twists and turns before they can have their happily-ever-after, including the threat of suttee (burning widows alive on their husband’s pyre). They prevail and escape to a life together. The story made a huge impression on me and has stayed with me ever since.
Pat: I would pull out PRIDE AND PREJUDICE first because it was my first love story and the one I remember best, but so does everyone else. Instead, I’d rather point to a less familiar, real life love story. Since I started out as an American historian before I turned to English history, I’ll delve back into Americana. How many of you remember John and Abigail Adams? They were the Michelle and Obama of their times. Their love story was every bit as tantalizing, heated, and tenderly long-lived as any I’ve ever read. And real, not fiction.
They met in 1759, when Abigail was only 15 and John 24. It wasn’t an auspicious meeting. He was short and stout. She was skinny and plain, and he thought, vapid. But by 1762—and I’d really like to hear the story of how this happened, other than that he was working with her father—they were exchanging what was, for the day, fairly raunchy letters, cloaked in metaphor and allegory and using their matching wits. In 1763, John writes: Cruel, Yet perhaps blessed storm! — Cruel for . . .keeping me at my Distance. For every experimental Phylosopher knows, that the steel and the Magnet . . .will not fly together with more Celerity, than somebody And somebody, when brought within the striking Distance — and, Itches, Aches, Agues, and Repentance might be the Consequences of a Contact in present Circumstances.
By 1796, after years of marriage and amid the chaos of presidential life, John was still writing love notes to his beloved Abigail. This cold Weather makes me regret the Loss of my Bed, and Fireside, and assuredly the Companion and Delight of both. Their correspondence fills volumes and draws a beautiful picture of a couple well suited physically, emotionally, and intellectually. How often do you read a story like that?
If you want to sample the actual letters, the entire archive is here.
Susan says –
Most romantic book or movie? For me, moments from a few movies come immediately to mind, expressing what I love most about romantic love – the kind of soul-deep, forever love conveyed in the most reserved, quiet, utterly devoted, completely understated way. When I see that occur in a movie, even if it's just a flash in time, that's a swoonworthy moment.
The Princess Bride – “As you wish,” says farmboy Westley so quietly to Princess Buttercup, showing his steady and devoted heart as he falls in love with her. Later, the Dread Pirate Roberts calls “As you wiiiiiiiiiiisshhhh” just as the angry princess shoves him down a hill, revealing that he is the assumed-dead Westley, and that his heart is still steady and devoted to her, that he has loved her all this time. Be still, my own heart – that quiet answer in the barn and that simple callout as he rolls down the hill are beyond wonderful.
Pride and Prejudice – Oh! The hand gesture!! A powerful expression of yearning, reserve, and growing love occurs in the
movie version starring Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. When Darcy hands Lizzy Bennett into a carriage, the close-up of their clasped hands, followed by the tight view of Darcy’s hand as he walks away – that hand flex shows how keenly aware he is of her, and that his feelings are growing more powerful, though he still resists. It’s a subtle, authentic, beautifully complex expression of growing love that goes straight to the heart. Darcy's hand gesture has its own memes and gifs now, and MacFadyen has said that it was an unplanned, spontaneous gesture in rehearsal that the director spotted and asked him to repeat.
And in Ladyhawke, which Mary Jo also loves for its beautiful expression of true love, the moment that gets me every time is so quick—a flash at dawn, the transitional, magical moment when Navarre begins to transform from wolf to man, and Isabeau transforms from woman to hawk, and they see each other in human form for an instant. As their fingers almost touch, the yearning, the power of love between two souls who are part of each other, destined to be together, yet tragically separated, is brilliant and unforgettable.
Nicola: One of the books I read as a teenager was Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, largely because it was based on the town of Knutsford in Cheshire where my mother had had her first teaching job and where two of my godmothers lived. I knew it well and visited often. I loved the humour in Cranford but didn’t particularly rate Elizabeth Gaskell as a romantic author! However that all changed when the BBC gave two of her novels their historical treatment! The series everyone talks about is North and South which featured Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale and Richard Armitage as John Thornton. Margaret is a southerner and a vicar’s daughter, whose family has to move to the North of England and struggles with the very different customs and lifestyle of a northern industrial town. The story is set in the mid-Victorian era and reflects on the harsh lives of mill workers and the conflict Margaret feels through sympathising with their situation whilst at the same time falling in love with the strong and silent John Thornton.
Most of the success of the series has been attributed to Richard Armitage’s depiction of John Thornton which was a masterful example of emotional restraint that you just knew is assumed over strong passions. The final scene where he and Margaret are reconciled is such a beautiful and tender one, full of love and hope.
However, just as good, IMO, is Wives and Daughters, in which Molly Gibson has been raised by her widowed father Dr Gibson, whose re-marriage causes lots of heartache. Molly's involvement with the Hamleys, a local aristocratic but impoverished family, provides various plot twists: Molly falls in love with the younger brother of the family, Roger Hamley, but he only has eyes for her stepsister Cynthia. Again, the BBC did a splendid serialisation of the book and the the way in which Roger comes to recognise that he loves Molly as more than a friend is beautifully done, as is the way in which they are finally united. There are a number of scenes that I watch over and over again; the moment when Roger sees Molly at a ball, looking gorgeous, with suitors fawning over her and it crystalises his feelings for her… Duh! And the scene where he asks Molly father for permission to marry her is priceless – now he's realised how he feels he is fizzing with impatience! The book didn't have an ending because Mrs Gaskell died suddenly before it was finished but fortunately the TV adaptation provided one that was entirely satisfactory and in keeping with the rest of the story. With certain resonances with the present, Molly is in "social isolation" because she may have scarlet fever so she and Roger can't get close to each other – which makes the intensity of the emotion they are expressing even more vivid. So romantic and satisfying!
Now it's your turn – What is the best love story you’ve ever read about or seen on TV or at the movies – and what is it that makes it so good?