New book offers love lessons from literature

Released this week to critical acclaim, a new book called ‘Much Ado About Loving’ distils the works of the world’s literary greats into useful relationship advice for modern readers.

Inspired by novelist EM Forster, two American authors have channeled the wisdom of history’s most celebrated writers into a series of tips about the joys and pitfalls of dating. In the world’s great works of literature, the theory goes, you can find all the lessons you need for a successful life.

But how much can fiction really teach us about reality? Inspired by the Much Ado About Loving project, here are four key messages we could take from the classics:

1. William Shakespeare, Othello: ‘Love is blind’, ‘one that loved, not wisely but too well’ – Shakespeare had a lot to say about love. But Othello’s grizzly experience is particularly striking. Turned against his wife by a villainous rival and the ‘green eyed monster’ envy, he kills her, only to find that she is innocent. ‘Don’t be jealous’ is the moral most readers draw, although ‘don’t kill people’ may be more to the point.

2. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary: Everybody wants what they cannot have. But, suggests Flaubert, be careful what you wish for. When a rich, glamorous gentleman passes by, Emma Bovary is smitten. By the time she discovers that there is only empty cruelty behind the refined manners and fine clothes, her life is in ruins.

3. George Eliot, Middlemarch: He’s intelligent, serious, full of worldly experience. He’s also humourless, ugly and old enough to be her father, but a brilliant mind is what matters – or so the heroine Dorothea believes, until she marries him. Then, imprisoned with a miserable, frustrated old man, she longs for some youthful energy in her life.

4. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Miss Havisham is a bitter old woman surrounded by cobwebs and rotting food, stuck in the dress, the house and the moment in which she was left by her lover on her wedding day. Surely she is too outlandish to teach us anything helpful? But the picture of someone still living in the memory of a long-dead relationship may be familiar, and the message is clear: get over it!

Bad examples?

The authors of Much Ado About Loving say that great novelists are also ‘great amateur psychologists’. The same penetrating powers of observation that allow them to write good novels also give them a deep insight into the workings of the human soul.

But sceptics point out that in many cases the writers we admire had miserable love lives. Dickens’ and Tolstoy’s were turbulent; Eliot’s caused a scandal, and Jane Austen’s was, for the most part, a total blank. If a writer’s ‘insight’ failed to bring them happiness, they argue, we can hardly expect their works to serve us any better.

You Decide

  1. Can a made-up story teach us anything worthwhile about life?
  2. Are people and their relationships similar enough to compare, or are we all totally unique?

Activities

  1. Think of an experience you have had that taught a valuable lesson. Plan a story that could help somebody in a similar situation.
  2. Research one of the authors mentioned above. Do you think their lives are reflected in the books they wrote? Write a report answering this question.

Some People Say...

“Fiction can’t teach you anything about how to live.”

What do you think?

Q & A

If a writer failed in their own relationships, why should I trust them with mine?
Perhaps you shouldn’t! But for Maura Kelly, one of the authors ofMuch Ado About Loving, failure is a much better teacher than success. 'It’s a do as I say, not as I do kind of thing,' she argues.
Shakespeare died hundreds of years ago. Haven’t people changed since then?
In some ways, of course. Few people now sail warships like Othello or go to formal dances like Jane Austen’s characters, and few today would think it acceptable to kill an unfaithful woman. But many of our emotions remain the same. How much human nature changes according to circumstance is a huge unanswered question.

Word Watch

William Shakespeare
England’s most famous writer and playwright, regarded as one of the greatest of all time. His love life was highly complicated and is still much debated today. He married an older woman when only 18, but some critics see evidence in his poems of adulterous affairs – and perhaps even homosexual liaisons.
Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert was a great French writer of the 19th century. His love life was a disaster, mainly involving flings with prostitutes, from whom he contracted a string of sexually transmitted diseases.
George Eliot
Mary Anne Evans, writing under the assumed name George Eliot to avoid sexist criticism, was one of Britain’s greatest female novelists. She scandalised Victorian London by having an open affair with a married man, and then later marrying another man twenty years younger than her.
Charles Dickens
Dickens was the most popular English novelist of the 19th century, famous for his sympathetic and lively descriptions of life in the seedy backstreets and poor quarters of London. His love life, however, appears to have been a model of respectability.
EM Forster
Forster is famous for the ironic, well crafted novels he wrote in the mid-20th Century. His Howard’s End, which portrays the challenges faced by a couple who are political opposites, particularly inspired an author of Much Ado About Loving .

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