Love, it has been said, is a “many-splendoured thing”, and while that sentiment was uttered in the context of the 1955 film and song of the same name, it holds true for literature too.
With the exception of dystopian storytelling, where romance is just another blight upon human existence, love is presented as the fulfilment of all human desire, the reward for undergoing all manner of trials and tribulations, and the very real promise of a happy ever after.
Which is why we lap it up, of course.
It is a welcome break from the often banal world we live in where catching the next bus or finishing our tax return often takes precedence over moonlit nights by the bay with the one we love.
It’s no wonder then that many of the blissfully happy – at least they are at the end of the story to our great relief and pleasure – couples we encounter in books have become the object of longing and adoration, as if the very act of admiring them would be enough to replicate such perfectly expressed love in our own lives.
Or maybe we are lucky enough to have been blessed with a partner as delightful and perfect as any writer’s creation (with the odd flaw to keep them humble), and we look to these characters for inspiration on keeping the passion of new romance as fresh as the day it began.
Or we simply love the idea of two people being truly, madly, deeply in love.
Whatever the motivation, these couples are near and dear to our hearts and are worth celebrating on any day really.
But this being Valentine’s Day, we thought it an opportune time to take a look at five couples that defied the odds, and found love that in many cases has lasted the ages.
Odysseus and Penelope in The Odyssey by Homer
If ever there was a paragon of marital faithfulness, it is Penelope who remains true to her beloved Odysseus through his long absence fighting in the Trojan War.
It is all the more impressive when you consider that throughout her husband’s extended sojourn, she is courted by no less than 108 suitors (none of them particularly prize catches it has to be said)!
That is a lot of whatever the ancient equivalent of flowers and chocolate gifts was.
Weary from being continually courted by men she has no intention of marrying (although at one point she does consider marrying one of her less repulsive suitors when the goddess Athena mischievously meddles in Penelope’s life) she even makes a recently returned disguised Odysseus jump through a few hoops – firing a bow, and of all things, moving a bed – before she accepts he truly is her husband and they are blissfully reunited.
While it isn’t smooth sailing for either of them, Homer implies that their reward for all this separation, and their devotion throughout it, is a long and peaceful life together, the original happy ever after.
Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
If ever someone deserved a break in life, it is the eponymous protagonist in Jane Eyre who suffers greatly in life before finding true love with her beloved Mr Rochester. But it is a long and emotionally traumatic road to happiness.
She grows up with her maternal uncle’s family, the Reeds, and while her uncle treats her with kindness (as does one of the servants, Bessie, when she’s in the mood), her aunt regards her with undisguised contempt and isolates her from her cousins and any sort of meaningful family life.
Sent away to boarding school, she is again victimised, this time by the man in charge of the school, Mr Brocklehurst, who buys the line he’s been given that Jane cannot be trusted, and treats her accordingly.
From that point on, while she does meet and fall in love and even come close to marrying the very eligible Edward Rochester, she is subjected to being attacked by a savage woman at his home (turns out it’s the current, totally mad-as-a-hatter first wife), loses all her possessions, gets lost on the moor and comes close to death.
It is a life of soap operatic proportions and you could well understand if Jane decides it’s all too hard and just gives up.
But in the spirit of all plucky heroines, she perseveres, finds out that she is the heir to a large fortune, and now a woman of independent means, is reunited with a cruelly disfigured Edward (a victim of the fire his wife lights at their home which ends up killing her) who she loves regardless and marries, and yes, lives happily ever after (are you seeing a pattern here?).
Emma and Dexter from One Day by David Nicholls
It is truism often quoted that real enduring love begins its life as deep, rich friendship.
And that’s certainly the case for Emma and Dexter, who meet on July 15, 1988 while at university and commit thereafter to reunite each year on the same day.
Theirs is a story of unrequited love from both parties. It’s not that they don’t want to act on their feelings but life has an annoying habit of getting in the way.
They’re either not in the same city or even country and when they are, one person will be in a relationship while the other remains single, or one has a successful career while the other flounders.
Whatever the obstacle, and there are plenty of them, it’s only when Dexter finally admits his feelings to Emma one night while he is visiting her in Paris, that they finally begin a life together.
Alas, and I will not give away too much for those who have not read the book , this is not a case of living out the fairytale ending but it is a tale of strong and enduring love and friendship that manages to finally find its fulfilment, and that in itself is inspiration enough.
Julie and R in Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
So this is the quirky choice but bear with me because the love story at its heart is as true and passionate as any you might have read before.
Julie and R meet one day when she is out with a teenage raiding party looking for medical supplies in a zombie-plagued post-apocalyptic Earth where a rump humanity is sheltering from the flesh-eating hordes behind reinforced domes, and R, rather unkindly, eats her boyfriend Perry’s brains.
As he does so, he experiences Perry’s memories and the deep love he has for the lovely Julie, who understandably is even more shocked when R, among a few zombies capable of limited thought and speech, smears her with his blood to mask her fresh scent and whisks her off to a deserted plane he and his friend M (they can only remember the first letter of their names) called home.
There to Julie’s great surprise, and the disbelief of those living humans whom she reveals this unusual relationship to, she and R develop a close and enduring bond that has a startling effect not just on R but on all his fellow zombies who have not decayed into the fearsome skeletal Boneys.
Unusual though its set up and setting is, this is an engrossing, touching love story that fundamentally underlines what a powerful emotion it is.
Henry DeTamble and Clare Anne Abshire from The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Now if you think Penelope from The Odyssey was a patient woman, spare a thought for poor Clare Anne whose marriage is lived in short, unpredictable snatches whenever her husband, who time travels to no particular pattern thanks to a genetic disorder, appears in her life.
Pinning down when she first meets the love of her life is a challenge in itself. While they technically first meet in 1991 at Newberry Library where 28 year old Henry works, it is their first meeting as far as Henry is concerned but the latest in a long line of meetings for Clare who has had Henry popping into her life over and over since her childhood (but these visits only start once they actually meet since Henry only travels to places and to see people with whom he has an association).
Despite the unusual nature of their courtship, and her long periods without him, Clare falls in love with Henry accepting that theirs will be a strange and unusual love that will not be easily explainable on Facebook.
What is most touching about their relationship is the absolute devotion they both show to each other in various ways across their fractured time together and it is a credit to Niffenegger that these two people in a very improbable situation capture our hearts as fully as they do.
*So which fictional couples from the world of literature have captured your heart?