Feeling bitter and twisted about the whole chocolate-coated, rose-tinted, heart-shaped Valentine’s behemoth? Fuel your antipathy with a good gloat over five of the top romance fails in literature.
1. Mr Collins to Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen)
Priggish clergyman Mr. Collins is in Hertfordshire “with the design of selecting a wife”. He settles on his cousin Elizabeth Bennett, but after explaining his reasons for marrying (his patron told him to), his reasons for choosing Elizabeth (he feels guilty for inheriting her house), and the reasons she should accept him (she’s likely to die an old maid otherwise), for some reason, of course, Lizzie declines. She would get the prize for literature’s most crushing turn-down (“You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so.”) if only Mr. Collins didn’t keep taking her refusals as flirty come-ons. After all, when a woman says no, she really means yes… doesn’t she?
2. Gabriel Oak to Bathsheba Everdene (Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy)
Gabriel’s hard-sell of the advantages of marriage might be humble (some chickens and a piano, because farmers wives are getting pianos now), but he ends on a high with perhaps the most beautiful vignette of a loving marriage ever written: “at home by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be—and whenever I look up, there will be you.” Still, Gabriel crashes and burns anyway. Bathsheba Everdene’s not keen on being a man’s property, and tells Gabriel in a rather off-hand way that she doesn’t love him. Bathsheba embarks on a disastrous love life before Gabriel gets his second chance.
3. St John Rivers to Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë)
St John Rivers is in love with the beautiful Rosamund Oliver, but she’d make a terrible missionary’s wife, so he proposes to plain, hardworking Jane Eyre instead. Jane gives him the classic “you’re like a brother to me” speech; St John doesn’t love her, for a start, and he’s got a wet handshake to boot. Of course, her heart is also elsewhere, across the moors with her moody, mad, wife-hiding pet project Mr. Rochester, whose marriage proposals involve a lot more sweeping to bosoms and chest-beating and whose handshake is undoubtedly crushing. No contest, really.
4. Konstantin Levin to Kitty Shcherbatskaya (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy)
Stolid and awkward landowner Konstantin Levin is desperately in love with Kitty Shcherbatskaya. Finding her alone, his face becomes even more gloomy than usual as he realizes he has no excuse for not making his move, so he launches into a proposal that scores points for being gloriously awkward: “I meant to say… I meant to say… I came for this… to be my wife!” Unfortunately, after that promising start, Kitty turns him down, because she’s head-over-heels in love with the dashing Vronsky. Of course, Vronsky’s not so keen on her (it would be a shorter book if he was), and Levin gets another shot at it later, but for now he retreats to his country estate, devastated.
5. Mr Stevens to Miss Kenton (Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro)
The build-up for this proposal lasts a whole novel, and when it finally happens at the end… well, actually, it doesn’t. Prim, repressed butler Mr Stevens is travelling to meet his old colleague Miss Kenton, who has written to tell him her marriage is in trouble. Stevens claims to want to ask her if she will return to her old post as housekeeper at Darlington Hall, but he is also drawn by the promise of a second chance at the most important relationship of his life, one that he sabotaged the first time round because he couldn’t bring himself to admit his feelings. Miss Kenton confirms that she has often thought of how her life might have been better with him, but she will stay with her husband. “…at that moment my heart was breaking”, says Stevens, admitting to his emotions for the first time, far too late.