The myth of Romantic love

Image of Harry Eyres

At a particularly charged point in the fine new film version of Anna Karenina – I think it was the moment when Keira Knightley’s febrile Anna reveals to her cold husband (the impressive Jude Law) that she is pregnant by her lover Vronsky – the man sitting next to me exclaimed, “It’s very complicated!”

He’d been sighing and muttering throughout the performance – belying the view of some critics that Joe Wright’s self-consciously theatrical directing style militates against emotional involvement – but this was obviously the final straw. I was on the point of emitting a disapproving “Sssh!” but was pre-empted by the tolerant chuckles of other members of the audience. After all, he was only saying what we were all thinking.

Tolstoy’s depiction of the doomed love affair between Anna and Vronsky is so brilliant and painful that I guess he reckoned it would only be bearable if alleviated by the contrasting story of Levin and Kitty. Queasy high-society claustrophobia, heading on oiled tracks towards inevitable catastrophe, is set against the immense breadth of the Russian countryside, a slow-growing love in tune with natural cycles.

But it is the crazy doomed love that takes centre stage and I guess 80 or 90 per cent of our attention in the film. A few days after I saw the movie, news broke about the 15-year-old schoolgirl who went missing in France with her 30-year-old maths teacher. Some parts of the media handled the story with the usual mixture of prurience and hypocritical morality. Great stress was laid on the age gap between the couple, though I didn’t see anyone note that it is perfectly legal for a 16-year-old to marry an 80-year-old. Of course the relationship may have been illegal, but the sweaty-palmed media coverage stimulated in me some sympathy for the pair.

All the same, as I was thinking about the film and the schoolgirl and her teacher, I couldn’t help part of me – perhaps a rather dreary killjoy part – exclaiming, couldn’t they see how badly it would all end? And that in these situations the disaster is rarely symmetrical but is bound to fall more heavily on one party than on the other.

Times, and society, have to some extent changed since the 1870s; you could say they had undergone a gender reversal. Whereas the effect of Anna’s affair with Vronksy would be fatal for her and hardly at all damaging to him (possibly the reverse, a feather in his cap), you could imagine that the immediate future of maths teacher Forrest would be troubled whereas that of schoolgirl Stammers might be relatively rosy.

In Tolstoy’s great novel Anna makes the mistake of thinking that her exceptional beauty, intelligence and charm (“She was the best of us”, one of her girlfriends remarks in the film) render her immune to the disapproval and ostracism of society. Her decision seems wilful; she goes ahead with the affair because she will do it. Vronsky, perhaps, doesn’t really think at all. I have of course no way of knowing what was going on in the heads of Stammers and Forrest, but I can’t help thinking they might have been influenced by what I might grandly call the Myth of Romantic Love.

An excellent discussion of this is contained in the philosopher Simon May’s brilliant Love: A History (2011). It is a bold philosopher who writes about love (after Plato), and a rare one who can tackle the subject with May’s verve and humanity.

The most fascinating part of May’s survey comes where he shows how a kind of idolatry of romantic love has grown up in the west that can only be understood in the context of the decline of religion (or the announcement by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra that “God is dead”). Love is the only remaining “master ideal or experience that gives meaning to life as a whole, and in the process redeems, explains ... suffering and injustice”.

May locates the beginnings and the high flowering of this idolatry in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Schlegel. In The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Rousseau recalls a youthful affair with a married woman. “There is not a day,” he writes, “when I do not recall with joy and tenderness this unique and brief time of my life when I was myself, fully, without admixture and without obstacle, and when I can genuinely say that I lived.”

In Lucinde (1799), Schlegel speaks of something still more transcendent: “at last the fruitless yearning and vain brilliance of the day shall vanish and expire, and a great night of love make itself felt in eternal peace.”

This is heady stuff, whose attraction remains potent. But May suggests that we are putting too great a burden on love, making it carry more metaphysical weight than it can bear.

That is true, I believe, for Anna Karenina and, possibly, for Stammers and Forrest. In making romantic love the unique guarantor of transcendent joy and authenticity, Romantics of all kinds are making a perilous claim, which underestimates the pull of different kinds of love and obligation.

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