Great lovers: A celebration of true romance

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

There is romance - and then there is the kind of all-consuming passion that passes into romantic legend. In the first part of a two-day Valentine celebration, John Walsh and Ariane Sherine pay tribute to 50 special relationships that still warm the heart.

Be your Valentine? I don't think so. Inviting someone to be your love object - as millions of us will do tonight and tomorrow, with slushy cards, chocolate hearts, limp flowers, insipid poetry and themed restaurant dinners - is like inviting them into a lion's cage.

It's asking them to lose themselves in a willed hallucination, a shared dream, a folie a deux, to swim deeper and deeper in an ocean of emotion, to risk everything for another human being and take the chance of losing half your life when it all goes wrong.

True-life love stories, unlike their fictional counterparts, aren't for wimps. You're liable to wind up murdered (like Joe Orton), castrated (Abelard), exiled (Ingrid Bergman), alcoholic (Spencer Tracy), mad as a snake (Lady Caroline Lamb), alcoholic andmad as a snake (Zelda Fitzgerald), knackered by childbirth (John Donne's wife, Anne More, mother of 12 children), chronically unfulfilled (Dante), serially betrayed (Frida Kahlo), or with your head in a gas oven (Sylvia Plath). Falling in love: it's a dangerous game.

It is also, of course, the most wonderful thing in the world when it works out, when it's done properly, when the participating humans are stable and unselfish enough to steer it through storms and squalls into a safe haven. But such success is rare. "What else is love," asked Nietzsche, "but understanding and rejoicing in the fact that another person lives, acts and experiences otherwise than we do?" The short answer is, of course, "everything" - most love stories are about anything but understanding, rejoicing etc the otherness of one's significant other. To appreciate one's partner, rather than seek to control, bully or exploit him/her, is an ideal. Many love affairs have been launched on such idealistic delight, only to founder on rocks of jealousy or betrayal.

That doesn't, of course, stop them being love stories. In hindsight we can see how many troubled and tempestuous relationships were fuelled by a passion beyond reason. That's why we marvel at them: at Scottie and Zelda Fitzgerald, ritzing it up on the French Riviera in the 1920s, with Zelda flinging herself off balconies in jealous rages; at Charles Grey, an MP at 24, hurling himself at Georgiana Cavendish, six years his senior and the grandest of political hostesses, and refusing to be dissuaded. These are timeless stories in their revelations of human character, in their charting of how a mere feeling - something numinous and emotional called "love" - grew to take over two lives. Even the dwindling of passion can make us swoon, as though we were listening to the close of a symphony.

The best love stories are, first and foremost, good stories, full of victories, reversals and droll incidents. Happy marriages, by contrast, may be admirable but they are often a little colourless. Happiness, as they say, writes white. We are delighted that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were happily married for decades in Hollywood - but it doesn't make much of a story, does it?

Education and inspiration seem to be at the heart of the greatest love affairs. The seen-it-all philosopher or artist who takes on a new female pupil, starts to teach her the rudiments of thought or creativity, finds himself gazing at her shining eyes and surging bosom, and discovers a new spring in his own creative step - how we love that well-worn story. How we love the idea of Rodin and his student/model/muse Camille Claudel, embedded together in his workshop, falling in love while she posed as his ideal woman and he chiselled out representations of her, to be gazed at for eternity. They were lovers for only eight years, but in our hindsight imaginings, they were together for a century.

Like the other great love stories featured in this two-day celebration of true romance, they move us deeply, and ask us to measure our own loves against them. And, the more we consider the famous passions of the past (and present), the more they amaze us by their multiplicity. The lovers are so different, so peculiar, so startling. What brought the gay economist Maynard Keynes and the impetuous Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova into a happy communion? What drew the reclusive Elizabeth Barrett to the exuberant Robert Browning? It's too simple to say that opposites attract. So, apparently, do virtual clones, such as Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet, who worked all day together, discussing intellectual cruxes, then went and read each other's manuscripts, leaving little comments in the margins.

We'll never know for certain what drew these lovers together, or how they negotiated their love through squally periods. We cannot quantify or calibrate love. We can't give these affairs and marriages marks out of 10. We can only stand in amazement at the power of love to magnetise, to ennoble and to blow apart some of the strongest, cleverest and sanest people in history, leaving us to read about them and feel relieved that our lives and loves are, by contrast, thank God, so ordinary.

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

    £7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

    Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'