Mothers, sons and other lovers: How love in literature has changed

The boundaries of romance have spread, and family life has evolved. Lisa Appignanesi argues that the greatest story ever told now springs modern surprises on readers

When my publishers rued the fact that my new book, All About Love, had come in too late for a Valentine's Day launch, I hastened to point out that love was a year-round affair and that April, which even begins with a fool, would do just fine. Then, too, TS Eliot's "dull roots" in The Waste Land had stirred with "spring rain" in this cruellest month, "mixing memory and desire". The Pre-Raphaelite artist, Arthur Hughes, had given the title "April Love" to his lushly lilac depiction of the model he was later to marry, little knowing that Prince William and Kate Middleton would choose the same month in which to tie the royal knot. Mother's Day - its historic origins found variously in the antique festival to the mother and earth goddess, Cybele, and the Lenten celebration of that later mother, the Virgin Mary - falls on Sunday 3 April; and my book has a great deal about mother-love in it...

The logic of dates is rather more straightforward than the logic of love with its paradoxes, its subterranean undertow, its conflicts and disappointments, its stalking partners of hate, jealousy and loss. When I set out on the adventure of my "anatomy of an unruly emotion" some years back, I had certain questions in mind. I wanted to know what this thing called love was in its permuations from cradle to grave. I also wanted to know how it might have changed (or not) through the centuries into our own.

What gains and losses have come from greater openness and equality? How has the burgeoning virtual sphere with its stimulus to fantasy, its sex and friendships and advice available at a click, affected the way we live love? Has our permissive society's unbinding of obstacles to love lessened its force, perhaps even robbed it of meaning? How has the fact that we live longer and have fewer children shaped love in the family?

I trawled the work of historians, sociologists, agony aunts, philosophers, neuroscientists and psychologists. I conducted interviews, listened to the pop lyricists, and questioned my own experience. Yet time and again, I found myself returning to fiction.

The moralists – Puritan, Victorian, feminist – may have railed against the idealising or romantic fantasies that novelists give us, but the novel remains the best informant on inner life and love. This is hardly suprising. Love, as Voltaire once noted, "is a canvas furnished by nature and embroidered by the imagination". Poets and novelists, past and present, are fine embroiderers: at their best they're also acute observers and analysts.

Love and literature have long been intimate bedfellows. Indeed, Western ideas of love and marriage have their source in fiction as much as in lived history. These fictions, like fairy-tales, may carry an element of wish or fear, rather more than they directly reflect any widespread reality. But shaping aspirations and daydreams as they do, as well as delineating behaviour, fictions help to form the psychological bedrock of the way we live love.

That mordant 17th-century French aphorist, La Rochefoucauld, once observed that "People would never fall in love if they had not heard love talked about". So fictional narratives, romantic or realist, are society's way of carrying on a conversation with itself about what it values and what it detests, about what may invoke happiness or produce despair, and what we mean by both.

In the 19th century, literature provides two basic templates of love. The first comes out of English literature, where Jane Austen is key. Here girl meets boy, overcomes pitfalls, vaults hurdles both of inner blindness and outer difficulty to arrive transformed at that glorious end-point, which is also a promise, where love and marriage meet. In continental literature, love has little to do with marriage, which is always a backdrop of convenience or misery. Instead, it has everything to do with secret desire and the grand illicit passion of adultery.

Enter Madame Bovary with her transgressive desires, her lack of interest in her child, her suicidal fate. Meanwhile, heroes like Balzac's Rastignac and Stendhal's Julien Sorel climb the social ladder through the scaling of each step by seductive acts of love, often with older married women.

Much has changed in our post-Freudian, post-Lawrentian world. Sex, whatever the genders or configurations in play, is noisily talked about and represented: not only as a matter of ecstasy or lack of it, but increasingly on a continuum between abuse and health. Oral contraception has separated sex from reproduction and liberated women into pleasure and from a host of fears, while engendering a few others. Women are now independent, their desires voiced, and as a result the contours of masculinity and male responsibility have altered.

Marriage may still be desired, but co-habitation, whether stable or serial, is equally common. We have fewer children and invest greater hopes in them. Very few Western women die in childbirth, nor do Western children frequently die from childhood diseases.

Divorce here is socially acceptable and easy, at least in law, which means that children may have as many step-parents as they did in earlier epochs. On the whole, there are no servants to free mother from some of the burdens of domesticity.

The lived experience, the psychological interstices, of all these cultural shifts are evoked, analysed and diffused in countless fictions from Margaret Atwood and AS Byatt to Philip Roth and Ian McEwan. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning and hugely popular "romance" Possession, with its sensitive "new man" hero and feminist academic heroine, brilliantly counterposes the Victorian and the contemporary to probe the nature and trajectory of love, then and now.

Social conditions may have changed. Sex, its pleasures, power-plays and disappointments, may now take place on the page rather than behind suggestively closed doors - but the inner dynamics of love have hardly altered that much. Jane Austen's basic love-line is still in play, even if today's heroine is no sexual or marital innocent. Love feeds on obstacles. It propels transformation, self-recognition and the hope of some established union – whatever the disposition of roles.

Lovers, despite our ironical times and literary preferences, still idealise the beloved as vividly as Levin in Anna Karenina worships Kitty or Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch elevates Casaubon to the rank of a genius to whom she can dedicate her life. Lovers grow fiercely jealous and avidly search for mortifying knowledge, whether in Proust's epic or Roth's and Howard Jacobson's fictions. Every wife betrayed by a philandering husband can still identify with Dolly's rage and inner tumult in Anna Karenina when she discovers Stepan's adultery.

Despite some 40 years of detailed fictional depictions of childbirth, Tolstoy's evocation of Levin and the contradictory emotions that tear through him as he awaits the birth of his babe remains achingly true. Every straying mother will still recognise the terrible tug-of-war Anna Karenina suffers as she is pulled between her love for her son, barred to her by her transgression, and her love for Vronsky. We have all known (or been) Proust's little Marcel, desperate for his mother's night-time kiss, in particular when visitors are present and despite his father's stern disapproval.

Yet I would venture to say that one area where fictional representations of love have grown richer and denser is in depictions from the child's or the mother's point of view. This may be because children have become increasingly special in a Western epoch when we have fewer of them. In tandem, and because of their sensational exposure, we have grown increasingly sensitive to abuses of love in the family. Meanwhile, psychologists have focused ever more on the importance of the maternal role in child development.

So the child's point of view has taken on an ever greater place in contemporary fiction. Hisham Matar's brilliant evocations of mother-son love – as in his new novel Anatomy of a Disapperance - replay the Proustian tropes with eloquent sensitivity and on new ground. Emma Donoghue's Room is a paean to a mother-son relationship in which language, story-telling and tender care obviate the horror of its Josef Fritzl-like setting. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time investigates, among much else, maternal absence and parental love from the innocent child's viewpoint.

In parallel, depictions of mother-love have taken on heft and subtlety. Austen's Mrs Bennet avidly attempting to marry off her girls occupies one classic comic corner of maternal love and responsibility. Like so many fictional mothers then and now, Elizabeth's mum, seen from the point of view of her child, is found lacking.

The feat performed by the Israeli novelist David Grossman in his recent To the End of the Land is to give us an epic portrait of an ordinary mother from the inside. Ora's son, like his brother before him, may be a soldier at war, their very being nationalised by a militaristic state. But Ora's condition of perpetual anxiety about her child is one that many mothers will recognise.

To stave off her son's death, which she feels is imminent, Ora resorts to magical thinking. She reasons that if she isn't at home, then the very fact that news of his death won't be able to reach her will in some way prevent its reality. So, separated from her husband, she embarks on a walking trip with a one-time lover, a man who doesn't know or want to know her son.

She spends much of the trek trying to communicate to him the intimate detail which conjures into life her son's very being. Her narrative is a dazzling enactment of mother love in all its grandeur and absorbing dailiness. Through it all, Grossman weaves a kind of bodily sympathy which binds mother and child together in unpredictable ways.

Given the intimate attachment between love and literature, one might speculate that reading should make wiser lovers and parents of us all. I have no statistics to prove it, so that has to remain a hope. But way back when, I knew a donnish Jesuit priest who in his work as a marriage counsellor would have his couples read DH Lawrence. Does it work? I asked him. He gave me a wry smile, shrugged and, as I remember, muttered something about Lawrence's prose being far better than the guidebooks.

Lisa Appignanesi's 'All About Love: Anatomy of an unruly emotion' is published by Virago this month

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