Victorian Love Stories: An Oxford Anthology edited by Kate Flint. Highly recommended.
Coincidentally, I happened to read this collection of Victorian short stories focused on love relationships concurrently with a book of Victorian erotic short stories and George Eliot’s Middlemarch(set earlier in the 19th century). Although there are occasional hints of the erotic or sexual in many of the love stories, most of them are about love and romance disconnected from the physical — love with all the proprieties. It’s almost as if the Victorian erotica fills in the missing pieces in the love stories that would be private and not observable (those things the characters truly think and feel but which is unacceptable to reveal or acknowledge in public, along with the erotic).
The love stories are, for the most part, about acceptable if not always successful relationships, whereas the erotica is largely about questionable or illicit relationships. Middlemarch made an interesting companion, since at least one of the key relationships, Dorothea and Causabon, appear to experience neither love nor Eros. In the end, both the love stories and the erotica may seem unbalanced because each seems incomplete — as though one can have love or sex, but not both. Is the balance as difficult to achieve in life as it is in literature?
Flint’s collection is outstanding in its scope, including stories by authors who are not well known to today’s average reader as well as stories by such authors as Anthony Trollope, Henry James, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, and Oscar Wilde. The stories include young love, middle-aged love (a welcome change from today’s focus on youth), deception, fantasy, fairy tale, class issues, religious differences, urban and rural life, changing mores, rejection and pain, and the proper and improper. There is even a touch of silliness in W. S. Gilbert’s “An Elixir of Love” and a surprise ending in Ellen T. Fowler’s “An Old Wife’s Tale.”
The settings range from urban London to rural villages; from rough coastal areas (Anthony Trollope’s “Malachi’s Cove”) to mythical locales ( Christiana Rossetti’s “Hero,” Laurence Housman’s “The Story of the Herons”); from hints of the supernatural (Wilkie’s “The Captain’s Last Love” and Amelia B. Edwards’ “Salome”) to other worlds (Olive Schreiner’s “In a Far-Off World”); from the urban (A. St. John Adcock’s “Bob Harris’s Deputy”) to the bucolic (James’ “A Day of Days”); from the familiar (stories set in the United Kingdom) to the exotic (Ernest Dowson’s “The Statute of Limitations,” Kipling’s “Georgie Porgie,” Flora Annie Steel’s “Uma Himavutee”). The one thing all the stories have in common is love — happy love, unrequited love, frustrated love, deceptive love, miserable love, tragic love — love and what passes for love in its complex facets.
Despite the subject matter, there is little that is sickly sweet in this collection. Love is not always touching or uplifting; sometimes it is deeply bitter. Most of the stories are memorable; some are unforgettable (Lucy Clifford’s “The End of Her Journey,” Hubert Crackenthorpe’s “A Conflict of Egoisms”). No matter how you feel about love, you are sure to find a beautifully written story here that will resonate with your experiences.
16 June 2002
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf