The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Our Favorite Literary Love Affairs

love by flickr user .jennifer donley.

We all have our favorite literary love affairs. Rhett and Scarlett. Rochester and Jane. Elizabeth and Darcy. But as much as these fictional flings have come to symbolize the height of passion and heartbreak, one can find plenty of love stories in the nonfiction section as well. The real-life relationships of poets and writers often have enough drama, devotion, and sometimes obsession to rival the best romantic novels. In honor of Valentine’s Day, here are a few of our favorites.

John Keats and Fanny Brawne 

What woman wouldn’t want to serve as poetic muse? John Keats met Fanny Brawne in 1818, and eventually fell deeply, passionately in love. Keats chronicled the couple’s relationship through love letters, some of which were tender, and others marred with jealousy. In July 1819, he wrote a particularly beautiful line: “I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was; I did not believe in it; my Fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up. But if you will fully love me, though there may be some fire, 'twill not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures.”

They became engaged in 1819, but kept the engagement a secret since Brawne’s mother disapproved of Keats’s low-income career choice. In 1820 however, Keats fell ill with tuberculosis, and left England for Italy in hopes that the warmer climate would encourage recovery. He said his goodbyes to Brawne in September of 1820---it was the last time the two would meet. Keats died a few months later, and though they never married, Brawne remained in mourning for six years.

George Eliot and George Lewes

Mary Anne Evans, who is better known as her pen name George Eliot, met George Henry Lewes in 1851. At the time, Lewes was in an open marriage to Agnes Jervis---so open in fact that Lewes legally claimed paternity for four of Jervis's children that he knew were not his own. Unfortunately, this claim prevented Lewes from divorcing Jervis, since he was seen as complicit in adultery. Despite this, Evans and Lewes created their own common-law marriage of sorts: they lived together, referred to each other as husband and wife, and Evans even took Lewes's name. Although this was seen as scandalous---mistresses and affairs were generally not paraded publicly---the couple didn't flinch, and remained together until Lewes's death in 1878.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Fanny Appleton 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow courted his second wife, Fanny Appleton, for seven years before they tied the knot in 1843. His poem “The Evening Star” was written for Appleton, and refers to her as “O my beloved, my sweet Hesperus! My morning and my evening star of love! My best and gentlest lady!”

Appleton died prematurely at the age of 43 after suffering burns from a house fire, and Longfellow never fully recovered, even worrying that he might go insane from grief. He was still mourning 18 years after her death, when he wrote “The Cross of Snow.” “There is a mountain in the distant West / That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines / Displays a cross of snow upon its side. / Such is the cross I wear upon my breast / These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes / And seasons, changeless since the day she died.”

D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley

Not every relationship has a tidy beginning. When D.H. Lawrence met Frieda Weekley, she was a mother of three and married to one of Lawrence’s former professors. Oops. No matter. Lawrence and Weekley married in 1914, and kept their marriage intact despite years of literary censorship, poverty, and even accusations of harboring pro-German sympathies during World War I. As a result of these allegations of treason, the couple left Lawrence’s native England in 1919, and led an itinerant lifestyle from then on. They remained together until Lawrence died in 1930 at the age of 44. 

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne

When Joan Didion lost her husband John Dunne in 2003, and nearly lost her daughter as well, she channeled her grief into the beautiful memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Winner of the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction, the book tells the story of her marriage, her loss, and the period of mourning that followed. It is a deeply personal account of what happens when love---the kind that shapes your daily rhythms, thoughts, and sense of purpose---is suddenly no longer there.

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