The Irish Times

Romantic notions: does fiction warp our thinking about love?

The complexities of love and marriage have sustained novelists from Jane Austen to Elena Ferrante. What do they tell us?

Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette in the 1996 film adaptation of  Emma by Jane Austen

According to Anthony Trollope, “There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.” The marriage plot is considered one of the oldest narrative structures in literary history, originating with the troubadour poets and extending to contemporary novels and modern popular culture.

A line from François de La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t ever heard love talked about,” forms the epigraph of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. Similarly, Alain de Botton quotes the same epigraph from de La Rochefoucauld in a New York Times article, using “that brilliant observer of human foibles” to strengthen his point: our style of loving is, to a significant extent, determined by what the prevailing environment dictates.

The complexities of marriage have provided ample fodder for novelists from Jane Austen to Karl Ove Knausgaard. Here are some of them. (…)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s best-known contemporary novelists, who remains an enigma as she refuses the glare of publicity, preferring her fiction to represent her. In the first of her four Neapolitan novels, the heroine Elena Greco writes of Nino (her soon-to-be husband) that “he said things that I could never have thought, or at least said, with the same assurance, and he said them in strong, engaging Italian.”

A reader of these novels will be able to study the changing landscape of the heroine’s marriage, the cooling of her ardour with time as she develops her own confidence and career. Ferrante explores the dilemma of marital crisis. “What could I do to keep my life and my children together?” asks Elena, a quandary faced by many women in the throes of a marital breakdown.