“The world's most romantic love stories”

Robert Armitage, in "Just One of Those Things: Dorothy L. Sayers at the New York Public Library"

Is love “just one of those things?” Now that the Godiva chocolates have been eaten, the frilly greeting cards opened, and the Vermont Teddy Bear-gram forgotten on a dusty shelf, is the spirit of Valentine’s Day dead? Maybe for everyone else, but for the true librarian, whose very profession is embedded in the soul of romanticism, it lives on. Some time ago, for an article in an online magazine, librarians were asked to name what we considered the world’s most romantic love stories. With yearning hearts, raging hormones, and brains overloaded with dopamine, we arrived at ten titles (Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Romeo and Juliet, Casablanca, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Doctor Zhivago, Sense and Sensibility, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Pride and Prejudice, Hunchback of Notre Dame). Some of these responses were predictable: Romeo and Juliet, Cathy and Heathcliff, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Others were less so: Did Les Liaisons Dangereuses ever really give someone a warm inner glow? Did no one realize that Casablanca is not strictly-speaking one of the most romantic reads ever?

My belated nomination for this list is the quartet of novels by Dorothy Sayers featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (Strong PoisonHave His CarcaseGaudy NightBusman’s Honeymoon). These novels should be read in sequence, as they chart the developing romance between the characters, a theme woven like a plangent motif through a musical composition. Since these are colorful stories of mystery and detection set in 1930s Britain, they might to the uninitiated suggest Agatha Christie, but that would be like comparing French brie to Kraft cheese spread.

In Sayers, the writing is of a literary quality seldom achieved in popular crime fiction, the background is an impeccably drawn portrait of multi-layered English society between the wars, and the characters are pulsatingly three-dimensional. Harriet is a resourceful, independent woman of strong feminist attitudes; a graduate of the fictional all-female college of Shrewsbury, Oxford; a writer of popular detective fiction--very much reminiscent of her creator. Lord Peter, the aristocrat who solves crimes, is witty, erudite, and passionate. He is besotted with Harriet from the first and expresses his desire in no uncertain terms. In Busman’s Honeymoon, Lord Peter interrupts a post-theatre conversation with Harriet to proclaim, in a husky voice, "Tu m'enivres!" (You inflame me!) It is the sort of thing many men might think of saying but few actually do.