The Least Romantic Relationships in Literature

Photo of Sir Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon from the 1939 film Wuthering Heights
Category: Reading

It is a truth universally acknowledged on my Twitter feed that the release of 50 Shades of Grey tomorrow to chime in with Valentine’s Day is in want of a SWAT team of domestic violence police. So, what other supposedly romantic scenarios from literature (I’m using the term as widely as possible) are, in the cold light of cynicism, in need of couples counselling?

Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester

Even if we avoid discussing the rather large elephant in the (attic) room, Jane’s relationship with Rochester is horribly dysfunctional. Rochester uses his position of power to flirt with Jane – on their second meeting he asks her if she finds him handsome and is hugely offended when she says no. On the morning after she saves his life and starts to think he might like her, he takes ‘boy time’ to extreme limits by disappearing for two weeks – only to return with another woman and her entire family! He nearly gets engaged to this woman as a ploy to make Jane jealous and test out how much she likes him; something that’s as cruel to Blanche as it is to Jane, all in order to decide whether she would actually leave him if she found out about his whopping lie. He’s the romance novel equivalent of a married man on He continues to torment her for a couple of months after ditching Blanche, seemingly for fun, and then he declares his love and forbids all the servants from telling her the truth, so she spends her engagement wondering if her friend the housekeeper thinks she’s a gold-digger. Does Rochester care? Does he heck! Jane then runs away and demonstrates some excellent pining that Bella Swan might be proud of, and as Bella does, she eventually goes back to her monstrous partner, on the basis that she now knows the worst anyway and she doesn’t think he really meant to hurt her. Ouch.

What’s more romantic than someone who bangs their head against a tree for love of you?

This is exactly why Twilight (and its fan fic 50 Shades version) gets slated for encouraging domestic abuse. St John Rivers may be coldly planning to use Jane until her death, but he is at least honest about what he’s suggesting and Jane is free to say thanks, but no thanks. To say Jane and Rochester’s relationship is unhealthy is in line with saying that keeping your wife hidden in the attic might not be sustainable.

Romeo and Juliet

This one’s too easy. Who other than a pair of idiotic fourteen-year-olds think that a) pretending to kill yourself, and b) actually killing yourself is going to fix anything? Surely the solution here was to immediately have a child, grit your teeth through the crushing years of post-infatuation reality, have twelve more kids and then realise you actually can’t stand each other? 

Cathy and Heathcliff

What’s more romantic than someone who bangs their head against a tree for love of you? Um, let me think about that one. Marrying other people just to get back at your lover? Even more romantic: making your children re-enact your relationship and forcing your son to marry your lover’s daughter. Heathcliff echoes the romantic hero at the beginning, but romantic heroes usually turn around and become nice about halfway through, like in that scene in Beauty and the Beast when she teaches him how nice people eat porridge. Heathcliff just keeps right on being appalling, yet readers love him for it. Luckily, Cathy’s as bad as he is, so she’s not being downtrodden or making decisions based on worrying about his (or anyone else’s) feelings  – she’s more like the Scarlett O’Hara to his Rhett. They’re morally reprehensible and they’re a disgrace to society, but they sort of suit each other. Could this be the most healthy relationship after all? 

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