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The greatest love stories of all time

We all know that flighty, fluttery feeling of falling in love – our round-up of romantic books includes novels, plays and poems from the ages that will make you experience it all over again, from the first thrill to the pain of separation, says Tabitha Barda

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Romeo and Juliet is the ultimate romance and one of Shakespeare’s greatest works.

Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1380
Some love stories stand the test of time and this verse, originally written in Middle English, remains just as powerful now as it was back in medieval days.
A retelling of the classical story of lovers torn apart by the Greek-Trojan war, Troilus’ initial scepticism of love, his terrific tumble into its clutches at the sight of Criseyde and his trauma at her broken promise are the same fuels firing modern rom coms. In fact, it’s so timeless that we still use a word borrowed from the text: if your loved one “panders” to your every whim this Valentine’s day you, can thank Chaucer for his character Pandarus, Troilus’ uncle, who sets up the love match at the beginning of the poem.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, 1597
The ultimate romance and one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, this story has been told and retold so many times that people who have never been anywhere near the book will be able to quote the likes of “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Seen through modern eyes, parts of the romance falter a little – it’s best to gloss over the fact that in the original Juliet is supposed to be only 13, and how ‘true’ can love at first sight between two teenagers really be anyway? But cynicism aside, Shakespeare’s sparkling verse, the searing poetry, the sheer abandon and vulnerability of the characters as well as the exquisite pathos of the ending all combine to make this one of the most tear-jerking love stories of all time.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1813
It would be impossible to have a list of top love stories without including at least one Jane Austen novel (yes they may essentially be 19th-century chick lit, but who cares?). While any of her books, from Emma to Persuasion to Sense and Sensibility, could blush and swoon their way on to the list, Pride and Prejudice’s central pairing is the most definitive of its genre – Elizabeth’s cynical humour and wry tongue; Darcy’s dashing good looks, large fortune and aloofness; his transformation into the white knight and a double wedding finale – sigh, it’s the stuff of every little girl’s dreams. With a whole cast of characters that many of us probably know almost as well as our friends, it’s a frothy, fun and beautifully written read.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, 1847
Byronic heroes (as well as romance novels) have their heyday in the 19th-century and Emily Bronte’s masterpiece houses the epitome of the motif with her brooding and brutal outsider, Heathcliff. Set against the bleak backdrop of the Yorkshire moors, the novel is as stark and hostile as its setting, recounting Heathcliff and Cathy Earnshaw’s all-encompassing but ultimately doomed relationship. Originally criticised for its ruthless depiction of mental and physical cruelty, it is now considered a classic of English literature, although the dark mood may not be to everyone’s taste. Either way, it’s likely to make you wonder if you’ve ever truly been in love. Devastatingly passionate.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, 1847
A novel that should probably come with a caveat: ‘warning, may fill you with unrealistic expectations of romance’. It begins with the childhood of poor orphaned Jane, who’s mistreated by her family and persecuted at school. She finally finds contentment as a governess at Thornfield Hall, in the employ of the moody and unconventionally handsome Mr Rochester. Cupid’s arrow slowly tugs at her heart strings until she is head-over-heels with her aloof master, but, plain and lowly as she is, she realises it is a doomed infatuation. And yet the seemingly impossible happens and her love is requited – a lot of drama involving class clash and previous wives ensues, but it concludes with one of the most triumphant sentences in all literature, “Reader, I married him.”

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, 1874
What begins as a jovial pastoral tale evolves into the moving love story between a headstrong young lady, Bathsheba – “of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made” – and the loyal Gabriel Oak, dependable and dignified as his name implies. Bathsheba is wealthy and a class above Gabriel, whose hard work to buy his own plot of land was destroyed during a storm. There are many twists and turns along the way as Bathsheba flirts with and marries others, but ultimately both meaningless attraction and the practicality of a wealthier match are cast aside in favour of loving equality. Gabriel’s summary of their closeness is deceptively simple, “At home by the fire, whenever you look up there I shall be – and whenever I look up, there will be you.”

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, 1948
We’re first introduced to Cassandra Mortmain with an opening line famous enough to feature on crosswords and quizzes. “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Thus do we meet our charismatic 17-year-old heroine and her eccentric novelist father, bohemian stepmother, beautiful older sister Rose and their geeky little brother, all slowly starving in a crumbling ancient castle somewhere in the English countryside. Suffering from writer’s block, there is hardly enough money for Cassandra’s father to buy bread, let alone fix the roof, but hope arrives in the form of two handsome American brothers, who also own the land the family lives on. A tangled love triangle between Cassandra, Rose, the two brothers and the simple gardening boy ensues, with a twist ending and another memorable closing line. “I love you. I love you. I love you.” Magical, enchanting and delightful.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, 1993
Like every good love match, Seth’s novel is intricate, complex and, at 591,552 words, seemingly never-ending. But don’t let its size put you off – set in the 1950s, in a newly independent India, A Suitable Boy takes us into the vividly depicted world of four extended families and their relationships. At the heart of it all is a search for love; Lata and her mother, Rupa, are both trying to find a ‘suitable boy’ for Lata to marry. With moments of humour, horror, warmth and sadness, this is a beguiling and satisfying book that sheds light on the ups and downs of life and love in a society in flux.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, 1997
A fascinating exploration of the meaning of love. What begins with a quiet picnic in the park between a long-term couple, Joe and Clarissa, ends in a disastrous tangle of emotion, mistrust and suspicion after Joe and a fellow onlooker, Jed, try to rescue a family whose hot-air balloon is crashing to the ground. The disaster is the catalyst for Jed, who suffers from the mysterious mental disorder de Clerambault’s syndrome – which causes the sufferer to believe that someone else is in love with him or her – to cultivate a dangerous obsession. He gradually erodes the joyful bubble of Joe and Clarissa’s life, testing their relationship and their trust in each other, driving them both to the brink. Darkly dramatic, McEwan’s crisp prose
and masterful structure makes
this a gripping read.

One Day by David Nicholls, 2009
What at first seems like a typical boy-meets-girl fairy tale turns into the witty narrative of two very good friends, Emma and Dexter, whose will-they-won’t-they story will strike a chord with anyone who has ever struggled to find themselves or had to wait to find love. Told in snapshots of the same day over the course of 20 years, this is a cleverly structured, often hilarious and ultimately heart-shattering novel that leaves you with the haunting sense of how life can pass you by if you don’t seize the day.


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