Valentine’s Day in literature: sickeningly sweet or comically cruel?

Valentine’s Day has just passed – thankfully, we can say goodbye to the cringey cards, bright-red flowers and couple posts. But what is the writer’s take on Valentine’s Day? Do they romanticise it, contributing to the commercialised nightmare it is today, or has it been presented as a day of tragedy and heartbreak?

Interestingly, in literature the association of love with Valentine’s Day first appears in Chaucer’s ‘The Parliament of Fowls’, which depicts birds gathering to select their mates in spring. Said to be written for King Richard II, and a nod to his betrothal to Anne of Bohemia, the poem is rich in allegory, flattering the female eagle in her search for a mate. But discord and conflict disrupt a narrative of harmonious courtly love, as the flock comically disagree, growing impatient and disgruntled. Chaucer displays the absurdity of love and courtship, as the choosing of mates is ultimately postponed to the following year. The poem captures the challenges and humour of finding a partner, and so seems the perfect literary introduction to Valentine’s Day.

As you might expect, there are several references to Valentine’s Day in Shakespeare’s works. In one of his earlier plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of the main characters is called Valentine, and the name seems comically attached to the plot, marked by the foolishness of love. Valentine’s Day appears again in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with an allusion back to Chaucer’s poem and the tradition of birds pairing into couples. This comedy also centres on mischief, trickery and misunderstanding, clearly informing the romantic comedy genre we know today. It is Hamlet, though, that contains perhaps the most important reference to Valentine’s Day, as Ophelia sings a comic folk song about it, that represents aspects of her relationship with Hamlet, placing her in the character of a woman hoping for betrothal. This reference, then, is one of tragedy, a cautionary tale about the dangers of love.

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, the custom of receiving and sending a valentine appears: against the backdrop of industrial Manchester, Mary receives an anonymous love note from, she believes, Jem Wilson, a man who has loved her since childhood. It’s bordered with hearts and darts, and beautifully written; but Mary does not seem to care, recycling the valentine to write a poem for her father. It is then passed on and recycled again, and then, unexpectedly, it is used as wadding in the barrel of the gun that caused a murder. This leads to the misidentification of the killer, and, finally, to Mary being reunited with her beloved. And so, the valentine takes on a central role, almost as a weapon, which diverts from the saccharine portrayal of valentines that we all know.

Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘A Valentine’ epitomises the secrecy, mystery and intrigue that make Valentine’s Day interesting. On the surface, it seems a sweet poem from a male admirer to an unnamed woman; upon further inspection, the words are coded, containing a hidden puzzle to discover her name in the form of acrostic. It spells Frances Sargent Osgood, a real American poet and incredibly popular writer, also known for her relationship with Poe and their exchange of romantic poems.

In Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Valentine’s is more tainted by pain and drama: the proud Bathsheba Everdene is affronted by the coldness of her wealthy neighbour, John Boldwood; on a cruel whim, she writes a valentine to Boldwood, intended as a mocking joke, imprinted with the words ‘marry me’. However, the joke is lost on the isolated and humourless Boldwood, and he treasures it, the identity of the sender playing on his mind. The valentine sparks an obsession in Boldwood that leads to possessiveness and jealousy, and ultimately to murder. So, it seems Gaskell and Hardy both associate Valentine’s Day with bloodshed, perhaps a refreshing take on a day that can often be over-sentimental and sickeningly sweet.

Of course, this literary journey through Valentine’s Day continues in modern fiction, but it is interesting to reflect on its depiction in our favourite classics. Often, more than romance, these great, familiar writers have explored the trickery, comedy and tragedy of love.

 Jamie Street on Unsplash

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