When I think of love–and I do so often–I think of two books about a person in love with two people at once. Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and Naguib Mahfouz’s Arabian Nights and Days. Lucy Snowe falls in love with Dr. John Bretton and M. Paul Emanuel. When Dr. Bretton marries Polly and goes on his honeymoon with her, Lucy is devastated. However, then M. Paul Emanuel reveals his love for her. At the end of the book, he has gone on a trip but is now coming home to France–when they will presumably marry. In the Mahfouz book, there is a man who is “in love” with two women: his wife, who is his age, and a younger woman whom he longs to make his “second wife.” Within a Muslim context, of course, this is allowed, but it is disconcerting to a Western reader–who ever speaks of that special place in a person’s heart belonging to two or more people? That, incidentally, is why Villette was lampooned in Victorian England: who speaks of a woman loving two men? However, as events unfold, the man in Arabian Nights and Days does not get to marry a second wife: his first wife tries to murder the younger woman, and in saving the second wife and honoring the first the man must give up hopes of a second marriage.
I speak of these books because I have a similar dilemma. I have two men who I have a “crush” on (I will not refer to their names to avoid embarrassing them). One is good looking and one is not, both are smart. For reasons I will not get into, the second is one I have doubts about the propriety of my being interested in. Of course, neither has shone much sign of reciprocating. This is a common theme in my life: of unrequited love. This is despite the fact that I always wanted my life to be about “more than a man,” and perhaps that is what consoles me in living a life in which there is no man.
I wonder why sex is so central to the modern concept of personhood, though of all things love is sometimes marginalized. People marry for love, but when sexuality tapers off, they are too prone to leave their spouse. I always wonder why they can not find a way to base their love on other things. This is despite the fact I have known or at least heard of woman who say like a Cathy Cartoon in Reflections has Irving say, “How will I know if you love me if you won’t have sex with me?” So many people think that love and sex are the same thing… but they really aren’t. This is despite–I think–some forms of love being based on sex in their earliest stages.
This modern attitude is the antithesis of the Victorian view which Charlotte Brontë rebelled against in Jane Eyre and Villette. Yet she insisted that romantic love not act contrarily to the rules of ordinary ethics. Rochester’s first wife had to die before Jane Eyre could marry him. And Lucy Snowe could not try to supplant Polly in Dr. John’s heart because although she loves him, too, it would be ethically improper. Perhaps the modern age needs to recall the ethics of Charlotte Brontë and not just the passion she portrays so well.
I wonder if I could live up to Brontë’s standard of virtue…