In honour of Valentine’s Day, our February display of books from our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is a bouquet of the joys and pains of romantic love
We have stories of love transcending cultural barriers – Kate Karko left London to join her husband in Tibet, while as recounted in Sword and Blossom, Arthur Hart-Synot and Masa Suzuki breached the barriers between Edwardian England and Japan to nurture their love. Barriers of class rather than continents were crossed by Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, one of the rare marriages between upper and working class people in a Victorian England obsessed with class distinctions – this gulf was also negotiated by the artist Ford Madox Brown, whose unmarried cohabitation with Emma Hill raised eyebrows; Into the Frame by Angela Thirlwell examines Brown’s love for her and for three other equally unusual women. His romantic relationships inspired his work, as did the love of Gertrude Stein for Alice B. Toklas, of W. H. Auden for Chester Kallman, and of Anton Chekhov for Olga Knipper.
Terrible circumstances have strewn some loves with unimaginable obstacles – the poet May Cannan immortalised her fiancé in poems as he served in the trenches of World War One; Helen Drysdale spent years searching for Gheorghe Cupar, who had disappeared into the brutal Romanian penal system during the Communist era; Betty Schimmel survived the Holocaust without hope of ever seeing her first love again, but miraculously re-found him 30 years later. In An Act of Immorality, John Carr charts the suffering of he and his wife Cynthia; he was white and she was black, so in the 1960s South Africa where they met, their love was a crime. So too was the love of Oscar Wilde for Lord Alfred Douglas; Douglas’s father’s virulent homophobia found its outlet in the bigoted laws of the time, and put in train a sequence of events that ended with Wilde in Reading Gaol.
Even without the cruel interventions of repressive regimes, we know that not everything in the garden of love can always be rosy, and we have stories of relationships facing illness both mental and physical, and crises of infidelity and deception. Lillian Ross writes movingly about being “the other woman” of New Yorker editor William Shawn for decades, and Julie Metz discovered her entire marriage had been based on lies. Dylan and Caitlin Thomas experienced a love triangle of a different kind, with the third party being alcohol. David Helfgott’s wife Gillian describes loving in the shadow of mental illness, as does Elaine Bass, whose challenges were kept secret at a time when such problems were taboo. John Bayley’s tender accounts of caring for his wife Iris Murdoch as dementia changed everything except their love, are classics of understated devotion.
Some infamous love stories ended in shocking crimes of passion and, in the era of the death sentence, ended the lovers’ lives – the romantic obsessions of Edith Thompson and Ruth Ellis led both to the scaffold; both of their sentences are now widely viewed as grotesquely unjust, and both added momentum to the fight to end the death penalty. These ill-fated women’s stories kept the newspapers flying off the newsstands; comparable scandal and obsessive coverage by the media of the 18th and 19th centuries centred around “adulteresses” Lady Wyndham and Caroline Norton. Their stories tell us much about the messy and unpleasant complexities of aristocratic marriages gone sour amongst the glamour of silks and brocades. On a lighter note, Round Heeled Woman tells the hilarious and surprising story of what happened when Jane Juska placed a very candid classified ad looking for a sexual partner in her retirement.
In looking at this most universal of subjects, we have tried to represent the lives of ordinary and obscure people alongside the famous. What happens when celebrity affects a love story – as in the case of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton? How does a marriage react to self-imposed, adventurous challenges – as when Gwyneth Lewis and her husband Leighton decided to sail across the Atlantic? How did the huge social changes of the 20th century affect the balance of power in relationships like those described by Ruth Brandon in The New Women and the Old Men?
All human love is here – come and find a love story to transport you, or to help you look afresh at your own relationships.
Claudia, Kensington Central Library