Valentine’s Day and President’s Day fall very close together this year, so I’m about to take advantage of that fact by paying tribute to some of my favorite romantic couples in fiction in this weekend’s post.
Granted, as a voracious, lifelong reader, it’s hard for me to single out only a few. I could probably devote an entire blog to fictional couples I love and why, but I managed to narrow it down to 10 (plus 5 honorable mentions) by restricting myself to one entry per author and relying heavily on the “re-read factor.” Meaning that, whenever I pick up a book featuring this couple and start leafing through the pages, odds are very good that I’ll be hooked all over again, no matter how many times I’ve read their story before.
Ranking my favorites in order of preference, however, is a task beyond my capabilities! I love all of these couples, and their standings may be said to fluctuate on any given day. So, instead, I arranged them chronologically–in the approximate order that I first discovered them as a reader.
1. Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë): I discovered “frail but indomitable” Jane and her brooding hero with his mother of all dark secrets as a teen being introduced to “the classics.” Athough, alas, no English teacher of mine ever officially put the novel on the syllabus, which is a pity because this is the ultimate Gothic romance and it ropes you in from the start and refuses to let go of you. Jane’s resilience, intelligence, and moral integrity make her an indelible heroine, and we come to care for Rochester, despite his many flaws, partly because he sincerely loves and values Jane.
2. Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen): Another teenage discovery! I began reading P&P around the time the 1980 BBC miniseries was being broadcast in the US (and that version remains my favorite, despite the likely greater popularity of the 1995 A&E production). Elizabeth–clever, witty, and warm-hearted, though not without flaws and blind spots–is a delightful heroine, and I’ve come to appreciate Darcy more, over the years. While we aren’t privy to his POV the way we are to Elizabeth’s, he undergoes a real transformation in the book. Namely, he changes from being all about himself–his pride, his social status, his consequence, his reputation–to being all about Elizabeth and what matters to her. And this occurs after she shoots down his first proposal in no uncertain terms. Heroes who learn from their mistakes and grow in the process are heroes who deserve a second chance.
3. Demelza Carne and Ross Poldark (The Poldark Saga by Winston Graham): One summer, Masterpiece Theater was reshowing some of its most popular series, including Poldark and Poldark II, and I was spellbound, watching this sprawling saga of an 18th century Cornish mining family unfold. Naturally, I sought out the books, which are just as rewarding–and in some respects even better, because there are more of them (only the first seven novels were dramatized for TV). But the enduring love story between stormy, sardonic Ross Poldark and earthy, vibrant Demelza Carne, whom Ross rescues as a ragged urchin and later marries, is at the heart of the books and the television series. As the years pass, the Poldarks face a barrage of challenges, and usually emerge stronger and more deeply committed to each other than ever. What more can one hope for, in a romance?
4. Beatrice and Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare): Unquestionably my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies, largely because of the perfectly matched hero and heroine. Beatrice and Benedick are both proud, brilliant, witty, loyal individuals whose “merry war” of words hints at a fascinating backstory–a possible past romance that ended in estrangement but failed to extinguish their powerful attraction and ongoing interest in each other’s affairs. When their friends conspire to make them fall in love with each other, you sense that on some level, B & B are only looking for an excuse to admit that they never stopped caring, which comes out most powerfully in a scene where Beatrice’s beloved cousin is falsely accused of being unchaste at her own wedding. Benedick’s changing sides, switching his loyalties from his male comrades to the woman he loves, is a defining moment for the character.
5. Julitta de Montrigord and Adam de Lorismond (Red Adam’s Lady by Grace Ingram): Long before the feistiest of today’s feisty heroines ever feisted, medieval heroine Julitta swung a footstool and defended her virtue from a drunk and randy Adam de Lorismond, who’d mistaken her for a tavern wench. A sober, penitent Adam subsequently tries to make amends by marrying Julitta and striving to win her heart. The romance between these two sharply rendered characters unfolds gradually but is never less than compelling. Prickly, independent Julitta initially resents the husband she was constrained to marry, but gradually lowers her defenses as she gets to know him as more than the medieval frat boy he appeared to be. Caught up in the Great Rebellion of 1173–in which Henry the Young King rebelled against his father, Henry II–Adam and Julitta face danger and adversity together, ultimately emerging as true partners and true lovers. Although Red Adam’s Lady has long been out of print, it is a rich and rewarding read, well worth the effort to track down.
6. Venetia Lanyon and Lord Damerel (Venetia by Georgette Heyer): Choosing one favorite Heyer is like choosing one favorite piece of Sees’ candy. But on reflection, Venetia is for me, Heyer’s most purely romantic novel, featuring a beautiful, sweet-natured heroine who is still nobody’s fool, and a cynical rake whose saving graces include a “well-informed mind and a good deal of kindness.” His sense of humor helps as well. I’m sometimes skeptical of the “Rake reformed by innocent virgin” trope, but in Venetia, it works like a charm.
7. Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson (The Amelia Peabody Mysteries by Elizabeth Peters): One of my favorite series started with a book that I thought would be a one-off: a light-hearted romantic mystery featuring a bossy Victorian spinster and an irascible archaeologist, united by their love of ancient Egypt. Instead, Crocodile on the Sandbank kicked off a long-running series about Amelia and Radcliffe Emerson, their growing family, their menagerie of exotic pets, and their yearly adventures in Egypt, excavating tombs, artifacts, and, all too often, bodies of far more recent vintage. But it’s the Emersons’ unquenchable passion for each other and their shared vocation, along with author Elizabeth Peters’ courageous decision to have the characters age and evolve, that has had me snatching up each entry when it appears.
8. Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers): Marrying off a fictional detective is a tricky business–all too often the spouse comes off as a mere appendage, content to be a sounding board to the detective’s brilliance or, worse, a liability to be exploited by the villains seeking to defeat the detective. Harriet Vane, however, emerges as an individual in her own right: a proud, stubborn, fiercely independent woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Emotionally scarred by a murder trial, she flatly refuses to play the damsel in distress to Lord Peter’s knight in shining armor. At the same time, she cannot deny her attraction to him, nor fail to notice how attuned they are, intellectually. Their off-again, on-again association reaches critical mass at Oxford, where they finally meet as equal partners in love and detection.
9. Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan (The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold): Take a level-headed, ferociously capable surveyor-commander from a famously liberal, egalitarian planet and match her with an equally capable admiral from a militaristic, even reactionary one. Result? A love story that somehow transcends dramatically different worlds, cultures, and beliefs, and carries with it the seeds for a transformative future that neither can imagine when they first meet, a future ultimately personified by Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, the formidable son of formidable parents.
10. Philippa Somerville and Francis Crawford (The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett): Commander, spy, diplomat, adventurer, and overall Renaissance man, Francis Crawford of Lymond is one of the most memorable figures in historical fiction, capable of evoking extremes of love and hate. You understand why his men would follow him to the ends of the earth–and why they might also contemplate killing him when they stop for lunch. His effect on women is equally dramatic and polarizing, not least because Lymond, while possessing a healthy libido, avoids emotional commitment whenever possible. But he meets his match unexpectedly in Philippa Somerville, a Northumbrian girl who, as a child, hates and fears Lymond after he interrogates her father, but who later reevaluates her opinion of him, becomes a companion on some of his adventures, and enters into a marriage of convenience with him to protect her reputation. While separated from Lymond, who is serving Tsar Ivan the Terrible in Russia, Philippa serves at the English court of Queen Mary Tudor and grows into an accomplished, formidable young woman. Reunited with his bride, Lymond is struck by her intellect, spirit, courage, and heart–and finds himself shatteringly, overwhelmingly, terrifyingly in love for the first time in his life.
11. Albert Campion and Amanda Fitton (The Campion Mysteries by Margery Allingham)
12. Kit Travers and Lucien Fairchild (Dancing on the Wind by Mary Jo Putney)
13. Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James (The Kincaid/James Mysteries by Deborah Crombie)
14. Annais and Sabin FitzSimon (The Falcons of Montabard by Elizabeth Chadwick)
15. Eve Dallas and Roarke (The In Death series by J. D. Robb)
Readers, who are your all-time favorite romantic couples, and why? I will be giving away a signed copy of Waltz with a Stranger to two random commenters this week.
Have a great holiday weekend!