Valentine’s Day was two weeks ago, but since love is timeless, I’m permitted to talk about literary romances today, aren’t I? Besides, every day is a good day to talk about favorite book characters!
Although I don’t read or prefer many unalloyed romance novels, I appreciate a unique and well-crafted romance within the larger story of a novel. Jane Austen’s works exemplify what I like: social commentaries that don’t focus on the physical attraction between a couple (which can veer too close to objectifying another human being) but rather on their mental and moral compatibility as they interact in a world bigger than themselves. These romances are still delightful and satisfying, but in ways that make us love the characters as real people instead of conduits for romantic thrills, much like how we feel when we witness our family members and friends getting married.
Most female readers have favorite literary couples that demonstrate cherished romantic ideals, and I’m no exception. My top three choices might be unusual, and I certainly understand if you don’t agree with me. I found it unexpectedly difficult to think of many literary couples I adore both halves of. On my long list of best-loved characters, few make it there alongside their partners. (One example of those who don’t is Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. I adore Jane Eyre, but I could take or leave the dark Byronic hero Mr. Rochester.) So each couple on my list includes a man and woman who are equally beloved by me:
- Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars of Sense and Sensibility. Most people can readily recognize Elinor’s qualities: her strength, her capability, her discreetness. But I can hear it now: “Edward Ferrars? He’s boring and wooden!” At first glance, maybe. And I do agree that I wish he were more developed. But personally, I find quiet, unassuming, and slightly awkward characters endearing. I also think he’s an equitable match for my favorite heroine, through their humility and high standards of honor and self-sacrifice. One of my favorite things about writing my novel Suit and Suitability was delving into the relationship between my equivalent characters, Ellen and Everett, and trying to show why I love this gentle yet courageous couple and their dynamics.
- Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit of Little Dorrit. For years, I didn’t think I’d meet a literary couple that came close to Elinor and Edward, but when I watched the movie Little Dorrit, I was immediately attracted. The book, which I read late last year, was just as wonderful because I got to spend more time in the company of two of the sweetest protagonists in literature. Arthur Clennam may well be my favorite hero, and Amy easily joins the highest ranks of my favorite heroines. Without being unrealistic, they are models of virtue and goodness in difficult circumstances. In the midst of harsh surroundings and grimy, selfish morals, they stay untouched and strive to do the right thing, always putting others above themselves. They are vulnerable and make mistakes, but when they come through all their trials and join together in the end, it’s one of the most satisfying conclusions I’ve ever read.
I wish I had an image of these two!
- Eowyn and Faramir from The Lord of the Rings. These secondary characters of the fantasy epic are not as extensively portrayed as the others on my list, but thanks to the movies and a beautiful section within The Return of the King, their relationship enchants me. They spend comparatively little time together in the books and movies, but as separate characters, they are quite appealing: brave Eowyn, disappointed in love and life, accompanies her uncle’s army to battle and slays a terrible enemy that no man can vanquish; and Faramir, the underappreciated younger son of the Steward of Gondor, despite being more of a peace-loving artist than a soldier, valiantly exceeds his duty in the war for Middle Earth. When they meet (as shown in the book and the extended movie version of The Return of the King), these two wounded, heroic characters discover what they had been missing all these years and what will bring them healing and happiness: each other.
What do these three couples have in common? They are selfless and persevere through heart-wrenching circumstances to accomplish what good they can. They are not ostentatious about their affection but are willing to sacrifice their feelings for the greater good. They aren’t flawless, but they are strong, and though tested, they hold up beyond what they think they’re capable of until the end of all their trials. And when they receive their reward in each other, it’s a beautiful picture of true love overcoming all odds, which is what we all long for and can ultimately find in Messiah.
Bonus: My runners-up!
4. Margaret Hale and John Thornton from North and South
5. Daniel Deronda and Mirah from Daniel Deronda
6. Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe from the Anne of Green Gables series
7. Godwin and Masouda from The Brethren
8. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice
9. Molly Gibson and Roger Hamley from Wives and Daughters
10. Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey
Who are your favorite literary couples?