Fictional Couples whose happiness won’t make you want to be sick in a bucket

In hindsight, I think the main reason I didn’t have any interest in reading as a teenager was that – in my experience anyway, a lot of books directed primarily towards adolescent girls, tended to have a strong sappy romantic sub-plot; and being the cold-hearted cynic that I was/am, I genuinely believed that it was impossible for a novel to have romantic themes and not be a complete load of dull shite.

And while yes, I still wouldn’t be caught dead reading Romeo and Juliet (YOU’RE THIRTEEN, you will meet other people! A bit of get the fuck over it is in order), I’m proud to say that my palette has slightly widened over time. I won’t automatically dismiss reading something anymore based purely on the knowledge that a loved-up couple will be featuring a lot in it.

Don’t get me wrong, if a book isn’t a little dark, I will probably lose interest, BUT I’ve learned not to be so narrow minded. Falling in love is a big theme, and of course not every single fictional representation of it, is doomed to feel simplistic and clique. So here are a few fictional couples whose stories have helped me broaden my horizons.

Robert and Maria (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1941)

This is such a beautiful book, seriously get on it.

Inspired by Hemingway’s own experiences travelling across Spain, reporting on the Spanish Civil War; For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place over the course of four days, and tells the story of an American volunteer Robert Jordan, who must blow up a bridge of strategic importance behind enemy (Fascist) lines.

For the offensive attack to be successful, the bridge needs to be blown up at a minutely specific time; and the story begins with Robert meeting a small group of guerrilla fighters, living within the mountains, who have been assigned to help him.

This group includes Maria – who they found in a horrifically traumatised state and took in. The cruelty inflicted on her, following the Fascist takeover of her town, is still a very fresh wound – yet her gentle demeanour hasn’t been poisoned. She and Robert are instantly drawn to each other and from the first night they are an item.

What’s particularly poignant about their relationship, is that while it moves fast as a consequence of the immense instability surrounding them, it feels realistic because Robert is frequently ruminating whether his passion for Maria is genuine, or if his feelings have only been intensified by the knowledge he could easily die during this mission.

Although some contemporary criticisms feel that Maria’s character is far too one-dimensional: factoring in its cultural/historical context, I’m not sure if that’s a fair assessment. But I would’ve loved to have known more about Maria’s personality outside of Robert.

Stephen and Mary (The Well of Loneliness, 1928)

As my previous blogpost on The Well of Loneliness, focused more on its obscenity trials rather than the book’s actual story, I figure I could talk about it here without doubling up.

Now the reason you’ll feel particularly invested in Stephen Gordon and Mary Llewellyn’s happiness is because prior to meeting each other as ambulance drivers during World War I, the novel details all of Stephen’s personal history.

Her incapacity, growing up, to comprehend her difference, her crippling loneliness, her unrequited obsession over a married neighbour, her mother’s eventual disownment of her – all of these experiences, despite the long held criticism that this book hasn’t aged well, have a deep, and timeless resonance. Plus, having a nuanced understanding of who Stephen is before she finds love, means as a reader you have a greater impression of how much Mary enriches her existence.

Another great quality of this class piece of literature is Hall’s additional effort to highlight the strong class element that restricted the freedom of queer women during this time. In the story Mary and Stephen are close friends with another lesbian couple, Jamie and Barbara, whose choice to live as a couple has left them ostracised from their small village destitute and ‘starvation poor’. As well as their influence on the overall plot progression, Jamie and Barbara’s existence within the story is vital because it highlighted the freedom Stephen’s wealth had given her.

Jean and Helene (The Blood of Others, 1945)

I was debating for a bit whether or not Jean and Helene belonged on this list, given technically it’s really not a love story – more an exploration into personal responsibility and what we owe other people. But when I read it years ago, I remember it partially strengthening my own, very limited, understanding of why certain things had turned to shit. And that’s pretty impressive from a book that’s premise was completely unknown to me before starting it (my motives for reading it were basically – I wanted to read some Simone de Beauvoir and it was the thinnest book I could find).

Set within a German occupied France, and like For Whom the Bell Tolls, also inspired by Beauvior’s own personal experience working for the French Resistance: The Blood of Others is the story of a brief affair relived through a succession of flashbacks, as the main protagonist, Jean, watches his former lover Helene, die of a gunshot wound (he wasn’t the one who shot her by the way, it was a French Resistance related accident).

What’s central to Jean and Helene’s story is that Jean is never sure that he loves Helene, yet he tells her he loves her anyway because he is fascinated by how Helene’s happiness becomes dependant on this imperfect understanding she has of him. In other words, it’s the classic existentialist mind-fuck where it dawns on you that you can only know a person to an extent.

 

 

The Life of ‘The Well of Loneliness’

radclyffeOne thing which is particularly fascinating and beautiful about books is their historical context, and the lives they take on following publication.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, is one of those books where in order to truly appreciate what it has meant to a lot of people, it cannot be studied from a literary perspective alone.

The Well of Loneliness was published in 1928 by Jonathan Cape. It was Hall’s fifth novel, and the product of a long-held ambition to attempt to explain lesbianism to a heterosexual audience.

The sombre narrative which traces protagonists Stephen Gordon’s realisation that she is a lesbian – or ‘invert’, and her struggles living in-between social conventions, was banned in Britain under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act and underwent a trial in America.

At Hall’s death in 1943, the book was selling a thousand copies per year, yet it still remained unpublished in Britain. In 1949, Una Troubridge – Hall’s long term partner, found a publisher prepared to print it, and although the law remained unchanged this time it did not lead to official obstruction.

There were prior novels which touched on lesbian themes, however The Well of Loneliness continues to be considered the first because of the wide-scale controversy it was met with.

Novels published in the same year such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, and Elizabeth Bowden’s comedy The Hotel, all had themes alluding to lesbianism – however these novels were never banned as they ensured that lesbianism was either condemned or satirised.

Michael Baker, Hall’s biographer, believes that it was by making Stephen virtuous that caused moral censure. Additionally, outside of the book’s content, Hall’s known identity as an open ‘invert’ and her masculine appearance, is another vital factor in fully comprehending why The Well was the target of legislative restraint whereas other novel with similar themes and emerging during the same period were not.

The public criticism The Well received was another central factor in its eventual suppression. On August 19th – two weeks after publication, an article written by James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, appeared which classified the novel as a ‘gloating study in the mental and physical corruption of the flesh’ .

Titled ‘A Book that should be Suppressed’ it pleaded to the Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, to ‘set the law in motion’ on the grounds that this kind of ‘moral poison kills the soul’. In response, Cape wrote to the Home Secretary, without Hall’s knowledge, and offered to withdraw the novel from sale if he judged it to be obscene. Joynson-Hicks responded with a letter to Cape demanding suppression and to cease sale of the book as it was ‘inherently obscene…supports a deprived practise’ and thus ‘gravely detrimental to public interest’.

Douglas’s condemnation not only sparked Cape’s actions, it led to the first printing rapidly selling out, and with one library in London receiving six hundred enquiries in a single day.  A correspondent to Time and Tide noted that the ‘nauseous details, discussions and suggestion’ which were filling the daily newspapers had a far more harmful affect than the written book itself because it gave ‘certain facts’ attention ‘which ordinarily would never have come to their notice’.

Allegations of obscenity towards The Well led a wider debate on literary censorship. Both America and Britain held a vague, almost absent, legal definition of what classified a text as obscene.

When The Well’s New York publisher Donald Friede was charged in February 1929 with violating Section 1141 of the Penal Code by selling an obscene book, his prime defence was who could determine the dangerous social consequences of one book rather than another?  Hall expressed a similar stance in an interview with the Daily Herald, asserting that it was an ‘insult to the public intelligence’ the belief that ‘literary food must be pre-digested by a government office before consumption’.

Its link to controversy turned it into a bestseller, and it was advertised in America once it had won its obscenity trial as ‘the most controversial book of the century. Suppressed in England and vindicated by an American court’.

The level of publicity it gained also sparked open communication within the public sphere to the existence of homosexuality – what was generally (as a Sunday Chronicle article classified it in an article on The Well) an unspoken ‘secret canker of modern life’. In 1921, for example, attempts to create legislation against lesbianism were denied by Lord Desart on the grounds that it would ‘tell the world there was such an offense’.

The hundreds of letters Hall received which expressed gratitude for ‘having broken the silence’ and personal stories, underscores that the novels existence (as a sympathetic account of lesbianism during this period) alone is symbolically significant. In these letters, Hall writes, individuals expressed a feeling of ‘added humiliation and burden’ which came with the ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding lesbianism.

In later decades, the style of writing was considered by some readers to be quite antiquated. However The Well’s historical context and Hall’s bravery, means a respect exists for this book beyond a literary perspective.

(It is worth reading by the way, I really liked it. All books age a little)