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.