Valentine’s Day is long behind us now. Winter is ending and Spring is around the corner. And for a lot of people, this is a time to reflect on past missed opportunities, long-over relationships, and broken promises, and look to the future.
(And before you ask, yes, of course I’m fine. Why do you ask?)
Anyway, there’s something addicting about the secondhand catharsis you get from reading about real life Romeos and Juliets. Here is just a handful of couples from around the world that were separated by circumstance, but memorialized their feelings on paper for eternity.
I’m hardly the only Rioter to be fascinated by the story of Peter Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil. So I’ll keep it brief: a famous medieval philosopher, Abélard took on Héloïse, known for her gifts in reading and writing, as a student. And, one thing leading to another, the gifted pair of brilliant thinkers started a secret relationship. One end result of their union was a secret child, Astrolabe. The other…
Well, Héloïse’s family was super not keen on Abélard. In fact, they sent some friends to teach Abélard a lesson. Namely, they cut off his…ahem. He afterwards became a monk and went into exile, while she became a nun.
But, the lovers didn’t forget each other, and years later, Abélard and Héloïse reconnected. And in seven tense letters, they left behind a story of two older figures in the Church, trying to reconcile the passion in their youth with their current duties.
Noli Me TÁNGERE by José Rizal
The young Filipino hero José Rizal and Leonor Rivera fell in love with each other. Even while Rizal left for Europe, the two young lovers exchanged letters. They even used coded messages, since Leonor’s mother Silvestra did not approve at all.
It certainly didn’t help things when Rizal wrote Noli Me Tángere, which poked at the Spanish rule of the Philipines and made Rizal a subversive. Meanwhile, Silvestra intercepted his love letters as part of a plan to have Leonor marry a railway engineer. Needless to say, when Leonor realized what her mother had done (and that Rizal had not forgotten her), she was furious.
Still, in his landmark novel Noli, Rizal immortalized his love Leonor as the character María Clara, the protagonist’s beautiful and faithful fiancee, who is separated from him by the machinations of others.
Bengal Nights by Mircea Eliade and It does not die: A Romance by Maitreyi devi
Here’s a love story that starts sad and becomes disappointing, but then a little uplifting by the end.
While a young man, Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade lived for a time with Surendranath Dasgupta, a professor at Calcutta University. Dasgupta had a daughter, the talented poet Maitreyi (a student of Rabindranath Tagore). And you can guess exactly what happened by this point: the young pair from different worlds fell in love. In fact, Eliade was pretty convinced that the Dasgupta family was encouraging him to pursue Maitreyi.
However, when Maitreyi’s parents caught whiff of the budding romance, they decided to nip it in the bud and asked Eliade to leave. Afterward, licking his wounds, the heartbroken Eliade then decided to write a (very) thinly veiled memoir in Romanian about this brief affair
But that’s not where this story ends.
Decades later, Maitreyi kept hearing rumors about Eliade’s book. When she finally got her hands on a copy and read it, she learned about a certain famous aspect of the book no one had mentioned to her: he wrote about them having sex, in detail. She was naturally furious, especially since, according to her, it never, ever happened.
So, for one, she flew over to the University of Chicago and confronted Mircea about his book.
- First and foremost, they did not have sex.
- Mircea had odd bouts of jealousy (he honestly got jealous of a tree, for Pete’s sake).
- Mircea regularly misunderstood her parents, thinking they wanted Mircea to marry Maitreyi.
And she also made one final thing clear: despite being content with her marriage and living a full life, and despite despising what Mircea had written, she still had lasting, warm feelings from that brief, messy, and intense young love—almost half a century later.
Honestly, probably neither book is 100% the truth. We may never really know what happened between them. But together, both books are far greater than the sum of their parts. Bengal Nights and It Does Not Die elevates the relationship post-mortem to a wonderful yin-yang.
Yeah, all of these stories are tremendous bummers. Yet we read, and even clamor, for these sort of true stories. We get to experience these doomed romances from the safety of our (hopefully) less star-cross’d lives.
That electric moment of mutual affection, the delicate tightrope walk of secret courtship, and the inevitable tumble downwards. And there’s that little brief space of infinitesimal time when they fall through the air to the ground, and you just think what could have been—if only…
And then you close the book and carry on.