Mothers, Sons and Other Lovers

By Appignanesi, Lisa | The Independent (London, England), April 1, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Mothers, Sons and Other Lovers

Appignanesi, Lisa, The Independent (London, England)

Love in literature has changed. The boundaries of romance have spread, and family life has evolved. Lisa Appignanesi argues that the greatest story ever told now springs modern surprises on readers

When my publishers rued the fact that my new book, All About Love, had come in too late for a Valentine's Day launch, I hastened to point out that love was a year-round affair and that April, which even begins with a fool, would do just fine. Then, too, TS Eliot's "dull roots" in The Waste Land had stirred with "spring rain" in this cruellest month, "mixing memory and desire". The Pre- Raphaelite artist, Arthur Hughes, had given the title "April Love" to his lushly lilac depiction of the model he was later to marry, little knowing that Prince William and Kate Middleton would choose the same month in which to tie the royal knot. Mother's Day - its historic origins found variously in the antique festival to the mother and earth goddess, Cybele, and the Lenten celebration of that later mother, the Virgin Mary - falls on Sunday 3 April; and my book has a great deal about mother-love in it...

The logic of dates is rather more straightforward than the logic of love with its paradoxes, its subterranean undertow, its conflicts and disappointments, its stalking partners of hate, jealousy and loss. When I set out on the adventure of my "anatomy of an unruly emotion" some years back, I had certain questions in mind. I wanted to know what this thing called love was in its permuations from cradle to grave. I also wanted to know how it might have changed (or not) through the centuries into our own.

What gains and losses have come from greater openness and equality? How has the burgeoning virtual sphere with its stimulus to fantasy, its sex and friendships and advice available at a click, affected the way we live love? Has our permissive society's unbinding of obstacles to love lessened its force, perhaps even robbed it of meaning? How has the fact that we live longer and have fewer children shaped love in the family?

I trawled the work of historians, sociologists, agony aunts, philosophers, neuroscientists and psychologists. I conducted interviews, listened to the pop lyricists, and questioned my own experience. Yet time and again, I found myself returning to fiction.

The moralists - Puritan, Victorian, feminist - may have railed against the idealising or romantic fantasies that novelists give us, but the novel remains the best informant on inner life and love. This is hardly suprising. Love, as Voltaire once noted, "is a canvas furnished by nature and embroidered by the imagination". Poets and novelists, past and present, are fine embroiderers: at their best they're also acute observers and analysts.

Love and literature have long been intimate bedfellows. Indeed, Western ideas of love and marriage have their source in fiction as much as in lived history. These fictions, like fairy-tales, may carry an element of wish or fear, rather more than they directly reflect any widespread reality. But shaping aspirations and daydreams as they do, as well as delineating behaviour, fictions help to form the psychological bedrock of the way we live love.

That mordant 17th-century French aphorist, La Rochefoucauld, once observed that "People would never fall in love if they had not heard love talked about". So fictional narratives, romantic or realist, are society's way of carrying on a conversation with itself about what it values and what it detests, about what may invoke happiness or produce despair, and what we mean by both.

In the 19th century, literature provides two basic templates of love. The first comes out of English literature, where Jane Austen is key. Here girl meets boy, overcomes pitfalls, vaults hurdles both of inner blindness and outer difficulty to arrive transformed at that glorious end-point, which is also a promise, where love and marriage meet.

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