by Katherine Hill)
One year on Valentine's Day my husband and I went to see Million Dollar Baby. Last year, it was Amour. That both of these films end with mercy killings should not suggest anything about my views on love. I love love. But I suppose it's true that most of my favourite love stories are rather savage, ending in devastation, death, or, more frequently now, divorce. Blue Valentine, I will insist, if you ask me to name a romantic film. The Age of Innocence, if you want a book.
But if you love love, you also have to love divorce. As historian Stephanie Coontz points out, modern divorce is a byproduct of a larger sea change in marriage, dating back more than 200 years to the emergence of the radical idea that the person we live and make our life with ought to be the person that we love. This was a somewhat awkward demand to make of marriage, which for centuries was seen as an instrument of power, property, and protection.
But awkward demands make for excellent stories, and it's no coincidence that at the same time individualism was giving love a boost, the novel was also on the rise. Nineteenth-century literature is crowded with couples who probably should divorce, but don't: Charles and Emma Bovary, Tertius and Rosamond Lydgate, Anna and Karenin. Love may challenge marriage in the 19th century, but marriage won't give up without a fight.
Perhaps no novelist understood this better than Thomas Hardy. His rural Wessex people strive heroically to modernise marriage, only to be met with crushing resistance. On her honeymoon, Tess Durbeyfield confesses her sexual past with the hope that she might start again with Angel Clare. But Angel worships a fanciful ideal of purity and cannot abide an imperfect wife. "Forgiveness does not apply to the case," he tells her coolly, before abandoning her. "You were one person; now you are another." With Jude Fawley, Sue Bridehead bucks convention, forming a partnership outside of marriage: "When people of a later age look back upon the barbarous customs and superstitions of the times that we have the unhappiness to live in, what will they say!" Yet Jude and Sue remain married to other people, and before long, their social isolation, poverty, and guilt are too heavy for their love to sustain.
If only they'd thought of divorce! In the same period that customs and superstitions crush Hardy's country people, the wealthy Londoners of Henry James's What Maisie Knew manage to lawfully sever their bonds. Not that James would ever spare his judgment. Through six-year-old Maisie's eyes, he presents the dissolution of marriage as the inverted labyrinth most of us still fear today: at once an administrative hassle for immature parents and a loss of innocence for their child. Or as Maisie ingeniously concludes of her parents, "Such discoveries were disconcerting and even a trifle confounding: these persons, it appeared, were not of the age they ought to be."
Children may be disconcerted, but women still have it worst in the literature of divorce. For Henny Pollitt in Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, "life was a rotten deal, with men holding all the aces". Henny is married to the titular Sam, an idealistic government scientist who heaps her with babies and debts, and refuses to grant her a divorce. "You devil of rust and rot and boring," he scolds. "You will not smash my family life." Imprisoned in "the frosty glare" of her wedding band, she feels "the dread power of wifehood: they were locked in each other's grasp till the end – the end, a mouthful of sunless muckworms and grass roots stifling his blare of trumpets and her blasphemies against love." Henny never does get her divorce, but, like the Emmas and Annas before her, she eventually resigns herself to that fabled mouthful, death being the rosier alternative.
The game is certainly rigged, though there have been women who've played their way out. In Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, Undine Spragg rides her talent for marriage and divorce to the pinnacle of European society; she's an incorrigible conniving snob, and yet as the "monstrously perfect result of the system", we can't help rooting for her to win. Or take Janie Crawford of Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. The granddaughter of a slave, Janie moves from husband to husband with refreshing self-possession, enduring gossip, tedium, hurricanes and physical abuse, all in search of the total fulfilment she believes marriage ought to be. She finds it finally with a drifter named, deliciously, Tea Cake, who would "never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking".
Certainly, liberalised marriage laws have freed most of us to marry for love. That's a triumph, but it also makes it all the more agonising when love turns sour or evaporates. Now it's no longer society's fault; it's the fault of our own stupid bodies and hearts. "Everything was so random," Olga despairs in The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante's breathless portrait of a deserted Italian wife. "As a girl, I had fallen in love with Mario, but I could have fallen in love with anything: a body to which we end up attributing who knows what meanings." Divorce ruins our memories and addles our minds. It also makes us hateful and mean. "He was humiliated by his inability to expunge the memory of having loved her once as romantically as he hated her now," Marshall Harriman reflects in one of the milder lines of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Ken Kalfus's blistering satire of 9/11 pieties and divorce.
Love's triumph over marriage means that couples today must be roommates, best friends, business partners, co-parents – and somehow also, amid recessions and marauding flab, delightedly and continuously in lust. In the great tradition of failed love stories, divorce is the 21st-century death: failure in a culture in which we're told we have all we could ever want. There is great pathos in that, as well as humour, when writers such as Ferrante and Kalfus undress the lie.
Yet in the literature of divorce, there is also eros: Blue Valentine's Cindy and Dean sharing a cigarette and dancing to their old song in the kitschy "Future Room" of a motel. Or, as Burton wrote to Taylor the first time they split, "I shall miss you with passion and wild regret."
Desire and divorce are two sides of the same hot coin, so it shouldn't surprise us that doomed love stories contain some of the best words ever written about love. When Henny Pollitt spits hate, Sam swells with high romance: "Those eyes, fringed with jet, long and well-formed under the high, thin penciled brows, had always stirred Sam deeply; and even when he came on her in a mood he detested, when she was sitting staring into space, communing with her dissolution, his heart would be wrung by their unloving beauty." His wife might stab him with a kitchen knife, and he might bleed, but even, or perhaps especially then, he can't resist the power of her face.
• Katherine Hill is the author of The Violet Hour (Penguin).