This time of year is a special one for me; I chose it as the backdrop for my first novel The Art Trip. The story takes place in February 1998, and I chose that time of year because February struck me as an inherently funny month. Always short, but not always the same length, often grey but with hints of spring and shot through romance, because plum in the middle of it is Valentine’s Day.
February doesn’t seem the most promising backdrop for romance, but nevertheless, there it is – this day of grand gestures and questionable merchandise. Love it or loathe it, you can’t help but notice it. It’s a strange mixture of the sincere and the comic, in a month that’s both bleak and optimistic. Since I was writing a romantic comedy, February offered all kinds of opportunities.
That got me thinking, where else does Valentine’s Day appear in literature? Writers far greater than me must have drawn on its traditions and associations in their own novels, poems and plays. I wondered what they had made of it. Had love blossomed for their characters? Had it been a more comic affair?
What I found was pretty interesting. Far more than romance, I found comedy, trickery, tragedy and mystery. So, after a little research, here’s my round-up of Valentine’s Day in literature. If you’re looking for some Valentine’s reading recommendations, these might be good choices, but be warned, it’s not all happy endings!
The Parliament of Fowls – Chaucer
“when I on love do think
I know not well whether I float or sink.”
According to the British Library, the association of love with St. Valentine’s Day first appears in literature with Chaucer in the late fourteenth century. His poem The Parliament of Fowls sees birds of all species gathering on St. Valentine’s Day in spring to select their mates for the season.
Perhaps written for King Richard II, and a nod to his teenage betrothal to Anne of Bohemia, you might imagine a work of pure harmony and courtly love. It’s true that the work is rich in allegory, flattering the noble female eagle in search of a mate, but this plays out against discord and debate among the flock.
Water fowl, cuckoos and seed-eaters disagree and grow impatient, each with their own comic characters and voices and so the absurdities of courtship are celebrated too. In the end, nature rules, and the choosing of mates is postponed for all for a further year. Despite the disappointment, poem does close with the consolation of birdsong and the coming of summer.
A vivid and lively poem, it has a freshness even when read so many centuries later, and it certainly captures the challenges, chance and humour that are such a big part of finding love. I adore the fact that this first literary reference to Valentine’s Day and love is also a comic one! If, like me, you’re no scholar of Middle English, there’s a translation of Chaucer’s poem which you can enjoy at Poetry In Translation. It’s a fantastical and rather fun read!
Hamlet – Shakespeare
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day,
All in the morning betime…”
It’s perhaps not surprising that among Shakespeare’s vast and complex writings are woven several references to Valentine’s Day. In what is often thought to be one of his earlier plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of the leading characters carries the name Valentine and is central to the comic plot, in which wires are crossed, friendships are tested and love leads to foolishness. In this sense, the work sets a lot of precedents.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, among the magic and mayhem, Valentine’s Day again appears, with an apparent reference back to Chaucer’s poem and the tradition of birds pairing with their mates. Once again, the comedy centres on misunderstanding, trickery and mischief, many staples of the romantic comedy genre we know today, and in this play Shakespeare also coins the oft-used and too-true phrase “the course of true love never did run smooth”.
It’s in Hamlet, though, that perhaps the most affecting reference to Valentine’s Day appears. Poor Ophelia, driven to distraction by Hamlet’s own madness or the pretense of it, sings a comic folk song about the day. As with everything in Shakespeare, the song is rich with meaning. It makes several allusions to Hamlet and Ophelia’s own relationship.
It seems to reference a tradition that single people meeting on the morning of Valentine’s Day would wed, and places Ophelia in the character of a woman hoping for such a betrothal. At the same time, in its lewdness, a comic rhyme of a maid who enters a room and leaves it no longer one, it seems to suggests her relationship with Hamlet has already been consummated. To hear the vulgar rhyme from the lips of the sweet Ophelia suggests how far events have unbalanced her.
This Valentine’s Day reference, then, is one of tragedy, a statement about the deep power the emotion of love can hold over our hearts and minds, and a caution to treat our lovers well. It may not be the cheeriest note to sound on the day itself, but if you’re interested you can hear various artists interpreting Ophelia’s song in recordings online, including this by Adelia Issa and Edelton Gloeden.
Emma – Jane Austen
“…she felt too much in the secret herself to think the appearance of curiosity or interest fair…”
Jane Austen is the favourite romantic author of many a reader, so it’s perhaps surprising that Valentine’s Day doesn’t feature more prominently in her work. Then again, she was also a writer of tremendous subtlety and intricate plotting, so it may have been her intention that the day was only hinted at, an extra layer of meaning for the most careful of readers to discover and delight in. Sometimes the best jokes are the sly ones, after all.
In Austen’s Emma, there’s just the most oblique, fleeting reference to Valentine’s Day and its customs. The arrival of a pianoforte with Jane Fairfax is the cause of speculation and intrigue of just the kind in which the misguided heroine Emma delights. A pianoforte is after all an extremely handsome gift for a lady of limited means to receive from an unknown admirer. The scale of the gesture, the secrecy surrounding it, Jane’s embarrassment and music being the food of love, of course are all suggestive to Emma.
There follows a series of conversations in which Emma and some of her close social circle discuss the gift and offer their own theories, none guessing at the truth. These passages are a delightfully intricate web of blind alleys and diversions into which both Emma and the reader are lured. This fascinating article from Juliet McMaster on The Secret Languages of Emma, explores this scene much more subtly than I can.
Most intriguingly, the Valentine’s Day connection to the pianoforte remains almost more hidden than the identity of its sender. Only through carefully following the chronology of the novel can the reader deduce that the gift was received on February 14th, a point set out in an article by Jo Modert in The Jane Austen Companion. The extent of the hidden depths in Emma might seem unlikely in the work of some authors, but in the writing of a master like Austen, it’s likely. Of course, as the novel plays out, Emma learns the folly of her gossiping and speculation, and learns how misguided she has been, both in the feelings of others, and in her own. Perhaps that’s what Austen is teaching us the reader, as well as her heroine?
If you’re interested to try and discover some further layers of meaning for yourself, or are seeking a witty and wise read this February, Emma could be the perfect read for you. As for gift inspiration, a piano might be beyond the means and expectations of most of us, but learning from an Austen suitor, perhaps a favourite album or a concert ticket might make a lovely but more manageable romantic offering for your love. Rather easier to keep secret than a piano, too!
Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell
“And the valentine I send you last February ten years?”
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton is a tragic and romantic tale that plays out against the harsh backdrop of industrial Manchester in the first half of the nineteenth century. The utterly unromantic realities of class division, work, poverty, politics and prostitution are the backdrop to the story of beautiful Mary Barton, who learns lessons about life and love through the novel.
Into this rather gritty setting, a valentine appears, and at first it seems an innocent and almost inconsequential thing, Mary has received an anonymous love note from, she believes, Jem Wilson, a hard-working man who has loved her since childhood. It’s carefully handwritten, bordered with a pattern of hearts and darts. Despite this, attaching little value to Jem’s affections, when she’s in need of some notepaper, Mary recycles the valentine to copy out a poem for her father. It’s a political commentary on the indifference of the upper classes to the plight of the poor.
From there, the valentine takes on an increasingly central role in the story, as the paper on which it’s written is passed on and recycled again. As the social, political and class tensions of the time escalate and sour relationships between families, a murder takes place. Here the valentine has a central and deadly role.
For its last incarnation is as the wadding in the barrel of the gun used in the killing, and that in part leads to the misidentification of the killer. Ultimately, this will lead to Mary being reunited with her beloved, but only after they have both experienced more than their fair share of sorrow.
So, a valentine almost as a weapon, and a thread throughout a story. A truly original and ingenious idea from the mind of Mrs Gaskell. If Valentine’s Day is too saccharine for your tastes, Mary Barton be the perfect read for you. You can find a very interesting analysis of the role of the valentine in Mary Barton in this article by Karin Koehler published by Cambridge University Press, along with a comparison to a work I’ll look at shortly.
A Valentine – Edgar Allan Poe
“Search narrowly the lines! – they hold a treasure…”
The potential for secrecy and intrigue are part of what makes Valentine’s Day appealing to writers. Even if for most the day plays out uneventfully, there’s a certain frisson of possibility in the air. The chance of an unknown, and hopefully welcome admirer. The potential for a surprise bouquet or dinner date. Edgar Allen Poe’s poem A Valentine epitomizes the unexpected romantic gesture and the added excitement a little secrecy can add to romance.
At face value, its a sweet poem from an ardent admirer to a beautiful woman, who remains unnamed, flattering her eyes and her sweetness. As it expands, it becomes clear the verses are hinting at a secret hidden within the words, exhorting the reader to search the lines well to discover a treasure. Yes, this is a poem containing a puzzle.
It’s a puzzle not easily solved without knowing the solution, but perhaps it was clearer to the woman who inspired it. The code to discover her name is rather fiendish. It’s a form of acrostic, with one letter per line forming her name. You’ll need to look harder, beyond the beginning of the lines, for a more subtle pattern if you want to discover the answer. I won’t spoil the surprise here, but if you’re eager for the solution you can find it here.
I will say only that the lady herself was a celebrated writer and poet. Their relationship, which may only have been a fond friendship, despite their evident fondness and rumours to the contrary, began when Poe praised her work in a public lecture. Here you can read more about her life and work. So, if penning a romantic puzzle poem for the object of your affection is a little too much like hard work, perhaps you could always take a different leaf from Poe’s book and try some sincere flattery instead this Valentine’s Day!
Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
“…there was something incongruous in the serious earnestness with which he applied himself to an argument on a valentine.”
A Valentine’s card plays a central role in Far From the Madding Crowd, one of the most celebrated of Hardy’s Wessex novels. It’s no heartfelt romantic missive, however, quite the opposite, and as is so often the case in Hardy’s work, a good deal of anguish ensues before any kind of resolution.
The beautiful and proud Bathsheba Everdene has found herself the unexpected heir to a prosperous farm. Her newfound situation does nothing to improve her headstrong character, and she is rather affronted by the seeming impassivity of her wealthy neighbour, fellow farmer John Boldwood. In a moment of idleness on a rather cruel whim, she takes a valentine she had intended for a young boy, and writes it instead to Boldwood.
Even to our eyes today, the note reads as a jest, sent anonymously, complete with the red roses and blue violets of schoolyard rhymes, and a wax seal imprinting the words ‘Marry me’. On Boldwood, however, a decent but rather humourless and isolated man, the joke is lost. He treasures it, placing it in the frame of his mirror, the identity of the sender playing on his mind.
Interestingly, this prank rather plays into the tradition of ‘vinegar valentines’, mocking declarations that were popularly sent to friends in fun or to less friendly acquaintances with more poisonous intent. As unlikely as it seems, this was a major craze in the nineteenth century, as you can read more about in this article from the Smithsonian Magazine. It’s a refreshing and comic and insight into a time we often think of as formal and decorous.
Bathsheba’s funny valentine may have had mischievous rather than spiteful intent, but it sparks an obsession in Boldwood that leads to a dangerous level of jealousy and possessiveness. Ultimately, his consuming desire to protect and control the headstrong Bathsheba will lead to murder.
So there’s a cautionary tale! You can read more about Hardy and Valentine’s Day in this article from The Hardy Society. If you’re seeking a dramatic and emotional read this February, Far From The Madding Crowd would make an excellent choice. I first read it in my early teens, and I still love its lyrical descriptions of rural life and its gripping melodrama. And of course, if you’re sending a valentine yourself this year, be warned and send it wisely!
The Art Trip
And so, to my own little novel! A warm and uplifting romantic comedy, The Art Trip follows the staff and students of Langton Community College Sixth Form embarking on their trip to Rome and Florence. Tension mount between teachers Beverley and Ken, whilst Beverley’s shy daughter Jessica harbours an obsessive crush. Under the inspiring influence of Italy and its art many lessons will be learned, but who’ll learn the most about love, the staff or the students?
If you’re interested to take a look, now’s a good time, because until February 18th the ebook is only $0.99 / $0.99*, and in Kindle Unlimited. You can find out more and read a free sample here.
I hope you enjoy it and do let me know what you think!