On the eve of Valentine’s Day, many of us are looking forward to spending time (and perhaps a romantic moment or two) with our significant others. But our decidedly tender views of courtship and marriage are a rather modern invention; for centuries, these institutions had little–if anything–to do with love. A look back at books on the subject offers an entertaining and educational perspective on relationships, religion, and even anatomy.
All for Love or, the World Well Lost (John Dryden, 1677)
Perhaps Dryden’s best known play, All for Love is a tragedy written in blank verse. Dryden sought to rekindle interest in serious dramas, and he acknowledged that Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra heavily influenced the work. Indeed, he reincarnates the Bard’s work with a few changes: Dryden sets the entire play in Alexandria and focuses more heavily on the end of Antony and Cleopatra’s life. Dryden’s work truly captures the complexity of the couple’s epic romance.
Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister (Aphra Behn, 1729)
Aphra Behn, generally accepted as the first woman to make a living as a writer, gained fame for her Spanish comedies. But Love Letters takes a darker turn: a woman is forced into an incestuous relationship with her own brother–then into a marriage to salvage her family name. The epistolary novel is supposedly based on the real relationship between Forde Grey (Lord Tankerville) and his sister-in-law, Lady Henrietta Berkley. Behn was among the first women to openly attack the practice of forced marriage, a commonplace practice at the time.
The Turtle Dove; Or Cupid’s Artillery Leveled Against Human Hearts, Being a New and Original Valentine Writer (Sarah Wilkinson, c 1811)
Though this chapbook is extremely rare, its theme certainly isn’t. Wilkinson wrote at least 50 chapbooks and bluebooks, and this one features two comical illustrations by Isaac Cruikshank. In the first, the groom gazes at his new bride with deep affection. Cupid’s arrow flies in his direction. The second illustration depicts Cupid–and the unhappy husband–fleeing the scene, leaving behind an angry wife encumbered with the usual accoutrements of broom and child.
Valentine Verses: or, Lines of Truth, Love, and Virtue (Rev Richard Cobbold, 1827)
Following the death of his beloved mother, Cobbold composed Valentine Verses. Proceeds from the book went to his mother’s favorite charities, but the poems weren’t received particularly well. The Reverend’s interpretation of love obviously errs on the side of religion, but this was not merely because of his occupation. The concept of love–even romantic love–almost always still carried undertones of piety and a rather religious devotion.
Physiological Mysteries and Revelations in Love, Courtship, and Marriage (Eugene Becklard, 1842)
The subtitle to this book gives the reader great expectations indeed: “An Infallible Guide-book for Married and Single Persons, in Matters of Utmost Importance to the Human Race.” Dr. Becklard, a French physiologist, fashioned his book as a sort of self-help guide for Victorians facing a wide range of sexual frustrations. He dispenses (exceedingly poor) advice on pregnancy, childbirth, and contraception, illustrating how little we really knew about the human body even during this relatively enlightened period. Dr. Becklard’s advice, though rather silly by today’s standards, certainly assuaged his contemporary readers’ anxieties.
The Battle of Life: A Love Story (Charles Dickens, 1846)
This novella, one of Dickens’ Christmas stories, recounts the story of sisters Grace and Marion Jeddler. The two live happily in the countryside with their father, who views life as a farce. Marion is betrothed to Alfred Heathfield, who leaves to finish his studies. After his departure, the Jeddlers’ servant spies the profligate Michael Warden with Marion and believes that the two are planning to elope. His suspicions seem to be confirmed when Marion disappears on the day of Albert’s return. Dickens, known for his progressive views, here explores the still relatively unconditional idea of marriage for love.
“Before and After Marriage: In Five Acts” (Cassius M Coolidge, 1882)
Perhaps best known for his poker playing dogs, famous caricaturist Coolidge turns his satirical eye to the institution of marriage. Comprised of six panels, “Before and After Marriage” shows the groom’s perspective shift over time from the satisfied love of a new groom to the apathy of a henpecked husband. This hilarious comic has proven an incredibly rare item.