Thursday Dances: Best Love Story

Troilus and Criseyde.  Romeo and Juliet.  Antony and Cleopatra.  Lily and James.  Shasta and Aravis.  Peter and Harriet.  Julian and Petra.  Benedick and Beatrice.  Fitzwilliam (pahaha!) and Elizabeth.  Cupid and Psyche.  Beren and Luthien.

One could list them off forever.  There are so many lovers and love stories throughout time that it’s impossible to pick just one, so I will share the best love story I’ve read in the past year.  Unlike Thalia’s choice, it focuses on a single couple; unlike Urania’s favorite, the couple’s love comprises the greater part of the book.  Where there are adventures, new characters, or scenes comic and tragic, they are shared in order to illuminate this love.  Most singularly, unlike my typical preferred reading, this story is non-fiction:

  A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken 

The book, according to the author, is a tale of “faith, tragedy, and triumph.”  Vanauken tells of how he met Jean Davis, generally called “Davy.”  Their love springs up like a fire, one which they carefully tend, stoke, and hedge about with what they called “The Shining Barrier.”  This was their determination to share everything lest they be separated by anything or anyone, especially selfishness.

In stirring words, including the occasional poem, Van describes what dutiful acolytes they were to this pagan flame; how keenly they sought after beauty; and what soaring delights they found wherever they went: whether at the family estate at Glenmerle, on board a naval ship in Hawaii, sailing off the coast of Florida, or together in Virginia, they were in an unending springtime of love.

…all of which would be quite dull, were that all Van had to tell.  But he also recounts their gradual approach to Christ while in Oxford; how eagerly Davy serves her new Lord and their Shining Barrier is thus breached; and how after 15 years of marriage, Davy becomes very ill and dies.  It is then that Van recognizes (not without some help from C.S. Lewis, with whom he kept correspondence) that this eternal springtime had to change, and that bereavement might have been the easiest way of it.  This is the Severe Mercy: that he did not lose Davy through selfishness, betrayal, or envy of God for being her first love.  Ultimately, even Van’s love is touched by the Son and turned to gold.

I find the text, even the solidly straightforward letters from Lewis therein, so beautifully piercing that it makes me cry about as much as The Little Prince.  Others with a bit less appreciation for poetry might find Vanauken somewhat longwinded or even purple; were it fiction, I would have less patience with his style.  But as it is, A Severe Mercy is the tale of a great truth: the moment love becomes a god, it becomes a demon; only when the Supreme Love rules can that prince wield his scepter in safety.

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9 thoughts on “Thursday Dances: Best Love Story

  1. Oooh. Good book! And it is certainly an unconventional romance. I love how appreciation for commitment grows out of their passion, and thus they are slowly introduced to the disciplines that articulate the highest love!

    (Although, I must say that I can only approve of half your listed couples.Troilius and Creseyide are awful! She betrays him, and he becomes an embittered jerk!)

    • I listed them from least-convincing to most-convincing. Hence the two that make me go “Accccchkkkk-PTHOOEY!” coming first, and Beren and Luthien at the end.

      • I wondered about that too, but I can accept your explanation.

        I have never even heard of this book, but it sounds intriguing. I fear the purple prose, though!
        It is true that while God is Love, Love itself is Not God. This is a truth often and easily forgotten, and sometimes realizing it is a painful process.

      • At first I thought that the noise was a sneeze. But sneezing at Troilus and Cressida is clever too.

        This is a very deeply considered post. Beautiful work.

      • Ah. Good. I will relax now. (Those first couple should really be considered as anti-love stories anyway.)

        But Beren and Luthien are lovely.

  2. Good book! And a thoughtful commentary. The book is also well written; the opening chapter is reminiscent of the first chapter of Brideshead Revisited. Likely this was intended.

    He also wrote a novel, Gateway to Heaven, though not at all a sequel to this A Severe Mercy, is another unusual story of true love.

  3. I have heard of this book, recommended by other friends of mine, and will make a point of seeking it out eventually. You’ve written very well of it.

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