A Candy Box of History’s Sappiest Literary Lovers

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Familiar figures among upper echelon literary lovelorn include Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, Robert Louis Stevenson and Fannie Osbourne, Gerard de Nerval and Jenny Colon, to name but a few. Their stories have all the poignancy, drama, humor and pathos of popular romance. Cupid’s unpredictability is never to be denied and there can be little doubt that the mischievous cherub was wearing his blindfold too tight when he shot the darts that created these legendary couples.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1864-1870

Dante and Beatrice

When Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (b. 1265 – d. 1321) first met Beatrice Portinari (b. 1266 – d. 1290), he was nine years old. From the time of this first meeting, she became his guiding passion, his lifelong muse and “soul’s delight.” He encountered her a second time nine years later, as she was walking in the streets of Florence in the company of two chaperones. Not a word was exchanged between them but, according to Dante, Beatrice saluted him with her eyes in such a way that he was electrified by such a vision of courtesy and sublimity that he seemed to “behold the very limits of blessedness.” Dante’s obsession with this noble lady was the perfect embodiment of the chivalric ideal. He venerated Beatrice and enshrined his love in two masterpieces of literature: The Divine Comedy and A New Life. The plot line of the former, mapping in detail the medieval model of the moral cosmos, follows Dante’s progress through purgatory and hell en route to eventual arrival at earthly paradise and ultimate reunion with Beatrice in heaven. Beatrice married and died at the age of thirty-five. Dante wrote a sonnet suggesting that God had recalled Beatrice to his side because he regarded the evil and imperfect earth unworthy of her grace. Two years after her death, Dante married a lady of noble birth named Gemma, who brought him little, if any, happiness. He passed the remainder of his life in troubled spirits, itinerant toil, and exile. Ironically and pathetically, his exalted Beatrice, the focus of what generally has been considered the greatest literary tribute in history, went to her grave ignorant of the monumental devotion of “the noblest heart that ever beat in Italy.”

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Petrarch and Laura

A younger contemporary of Dante, Petrarch seemed immune to the temptations relished by another medieval literary great, his close friend and confirmed skirt chaser Giovanni Boccaccio. In Petrarch’s case, women were a matter of indifference and a well-turned ankle left him cold. Though “ladies of high degree sighed and made eyes at tall, handsome Petrarch as he passed, they made eyes in vain. He was wedded to literature.” That is, until he met Laura. Sitting forlornly on a church pew Good Friday, 1327, he lifted his eyes and his gaze fell upon a vision of loveliness: Laura de Noves, the golden-haired wife of Hugh de Sade, ancestor of the notorious marquis. Even though Petrarch had entered the priesthood, and sworn off fleshly fellowship with womankind, the smitten poet was so thunderstruck by this sudden encounter with feminine perfection that he wandered the streets in a daze. But the exalted object of his ardor, being already married and a lady of noble birth, was untouchable and, in fact, Petrarch had little or no actual contact with her. There was nothing to do but bumble about the streets of Avignon mooning and swooning until he became so lovesick he had to retreat to another city to cool off. When he had somewhat recovered his senses, he began to pour out love poems in the form of what was to become known as the “Petrarchan” sonnet, later assembled in his Song Book and Sprinkling of Rhymes. Coquettish Laura, content to stimulate the poet’s lavish effusions, but otherwise unwilling to gratify him, died at age forty, mother of ten, none of them by Petrarch. Griefstricken at first, Petrarch continued to idealize his beloved, with the added exhilaration of knowing he was exempt from scandal, since there was no longer any possibility his passion could be consummated. (Though, while Laura was still alive, her chaperone had offered herself, for a price, in Laura’s place.) For his efforts in immortalizing his beloved with his superlative poems of devotion, Petrarch was crowned Poet Laureate of Italy, and is considered the father of modern poetry. From his twenty-third year to his seventieth, Petrarch dedicated poems to Laura, despairing while she was alive, grieving after her death, though she never reciprocated his affections save by accepting them out of vanity. Petrarch is the very exemplar of Courtly Love. He expressed the eternal dream of a love blending the hopes, desires, thoughts and deeds of two beings as one and, through this spirit, “forgetting the sordid present, the squalid here, the rankling now.” Petrarch praised his lady in every particular but never referred to her physically “above the foot.” This was likely not because he had a fetish for this anatomical appendage but to imply that Laura was a goddess and he, a humble poet, worthy only to throw himself at her feet. Permanently celibate, the poet confessed in his Secretum that he was as prey to the longings of the flesh as the next man, and “would be lying” if he said he wasn’t but, by spiritualizing his love, he had reached an altitude where he was no longer in danger of wearing it out. Such is love’s bliss, such is love’s folly…

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Edward Steichen, Balzac Toward the Light, Midnight, 1908

Madame Hanska

Giant of French literature Honore de Balzac was, oddly enough, molded as a creative writer by the persuasions of two women. The first was Madame de Berney, a matronly and sympathetic socialite whose son Balzac had been engaged to tutor. Madame de Berney, twenty-two years Balzac’s senior, and married to a wealthy paralytic afflicted with locomotor ataxia, was gentle, compassionate, and intellectually-inclined. She found herself taking long walks with Balzac deeply engrossed in soulful discussions about every subject under the sun. Her prolix communions with the novelist-in-the-rough soon reached a breakneck pace. So difficult was it to keep up that, in exasperation, she encouraged him to write out his thoughts. “As soon as he had written something he hastened to hunt up ‘La Dilecta,’ as he called her. He wrote her letters in the morning and at night. They dined together, walked, talked, rowed and read.” In no time, the pair found themselves entangled in the toils and meshes of the love thrall. Balzac wrote a dozen books or more a year. Because he was something of a spendthrift and had no time to look after business details, his heedlessness bred lawsuits. He loaned money to everybody and borrowed from Madame de Berney when creditors pressed in. All the while, he churned out manuscript after manuscript. He pulled double shifts, from two to ten in the morning, and from noon until eight o’clock at night. “Then for a month,” Elbert Hubbard tells us, “he would relax and devote himself to La Dilecta. She was his one friend, his confidante, his comrade, his mother, his sweetheart. No woman was ever loved more devotedly, but the passionate intensity of the man’s nature must have been a sore tax on her time and strength. He was absorbed in his work and in his love, and these were to him one.”

Madame de Berney decided that, by virtue of the difference in their ages, they were doomed to separation by the ineluctable tractions of time and “could never grow old together and go down the hill of life hand in hand.” So Madame De Berney took the initiative, telling her inamorato, “You shall not see me grow old and totter, my body wither and fail, my mind decline. We part now and part forever, our friendship sacred, unsullied, and at its height. Good-bye, Balzac, good-bye!” Balzac was dumbstruck but, having been barred by the servants from de Berney’s house, and banished from her sight, his rage relented, and he resigned himself to his loss. Then his attention was caught by a persistent onslaught of messages from one Madame Eveline Hanska, a countess living in far-off Poland.

“From her letters,” Hubbard informs us, “she seemed intelligent, witty, sympathetic.” Turning to her in his distress, Balzac discovered Hanska to be a twenty-eight-year-old member of the landed gentry whose elderly Russian husband maintained a vast estate in the Ukraine replete with serfs. As Balzac completed his Droll Stories, he and Hanska threw themselves into a systematic, increasingly intimate correspondence until it became clear to both that they were destined for a closer relationship than that afforded by the overland mail. They arranged to meet in Switzerland and again in Vienna, and became lovers. Agreeing to marry upon the death of her husband, Balzac and Hanska resumed their long-distance courtship. The novelist applied himself round-the-clock to a project called The Human Comedy, a series of a hundred books devised to “run the entire gamut of human experience and picture every possible phase of human emotion.” The conception of this awesomely ambitious project rested with none other than Countess Hanska. It was she who, from afar, now prodded and enticed Balzac to work, work, work, then work some more. Balzac eagerly complied, being under the impression that his efforts, in helping to clear his overwhelming debts, would put him in a better position to contract a satisfactory marriage with his beloved. With this prize as his incentive, he frantically labored until his health began to break. Hanska’s husband went to his heavenly reward, but still Madame held Balzac at arm’s length. Despite Balzac’s earnest entreaties that they be wed as soon as circumstances might permit, Hanska begged off, goading the writer to absorb himself with his work until such time as she could set her affairs in order and they could reunite. The years wore on much as before, and Hanska was “strangely cold: in sore distress — children sick, peasants dissatisfied, business complications and so forth.” Nevertheless, she advanced Balzac several hundred thousand francs to buy and furnish a house in Paris for their eventual cohabitation. When she and her daughter arrived in the French capitol, they were delighted with the domicile but stayed only a month, which was long enough for Balzac and the younger Hanska to become acquainted in a more than familial fashion before pressing affairs in Poland abruptly required the ladies to cut short their stay. Meanwhile, Madame Hanska “ruled him,” says Hubbard. “She alternately beckoned and pursued. Without her Balzac could not have gone on. She held him true to his literary course, and without her he must surely have fallen a victim of arrested energy. She demanded a daily accounting from the mill of his mind.” Balzac’s vitality was waning. “She sapped his life-forces and robbed him of his red corpuscles; so that before he was fifty, he was old, worn-out, undone, with an excess of lime in his bones.” The great writer “was growing stout; physical exercise was difficult. Dark lines were growing under his eyes. He suffered from asthma and aneurism of the heart. His eyes were failing him so he could not see to write by lamplight.” Growing alarmed, Hanska pleaded with him to join her at her country home in Poland, where they would be married. Arriving at her side in the Church of Santa Barbara in Berdychiv, Balzac finally marched with her down the aisle. The newlyweds excitedly made far-ranging plans for the future and proceeded to Paris. Upon arrival Balzac, leaning wearily on Hanska’s arm, managed to hobble to the threshold of their nuptial nest where he “lingered on miserably for the few months before his death.”

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Gilbert Alter-Gilbert is a critic, translator, and literary historian whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals. More from this author →