On Tuesday I finished re-reading The Four Loves by C S Lewis on Tuesday. I'd been prompted just before Christmas to reread it, when I remembered and read again a Waterstones interview with Sarah Perry in which she talked about the theme of different kinds of love, in particular friendship love, in The Essex Serpent, and which I found very helpful. This was the article. I'm pretty sure I'd read at the time of her previous book, After Me Comes The Flood, that one of the themes of that was different kinds of love, which had also put me in mind of The Four Loves at the time.
I read The Four Loves a long time ago - I think probably at university - and it was good to read it again. I appreciate the clarity of his thinking and writing, though (as with many old books, both fiction and non-fiction), you are reminded of how times have changed culturally in some of the things he says. For me, in particular, in the chapter on friendship, in relation to the examples and presumptions about friendships between and within the sexes.
This was particularly noticeable to me in that it was friendship across the sexes that I had really been thinking about, and in relation to which Sarah's article had been a helpful reminder - that there is such a thing as friendship love, and that because this is often forgotten in the modern world then any friendship across the sexes can be seen as inevitably being, or on a spectrum which ends in becoming, romantic or sexual love. Can be seen as, or one can be conditioned to think or expect that it is. While it might be so, it need not be so. It was very helpful to be reminded of that, in the context of being one who has good friendships with women, probably better than my friendships with men, in general, and for whom this had started to cause a little anxiety. I was reassured and reminded to accept the truth of friendship love, and not step back from it, while, of course, always being wise, alert and sensitive.
All the text below is an extract from that interview article (not all of which, of course, reflects my views):
That The Essex Serpent feels at once authentic and strikingly original is, in part, due to its central characters, in particular that of the novel’s sometime heroine Cora. Cora’s relationship with the clergyman, Will, is in some ways a love story. Yet I posit that this could also be seen as a novel about the casualties of love, the multiplicities of human relationships, and Perry agrees emphatically.
"What I absolutely didn’t want to do was to write a book about two people who madly fancy each other and at the end of the book they fall in love and they get married. That’s so tiresome and life is so much more rich and complex and complicated than that. I wanted to write about a relationship that is intimate and tender and exciting and even erotic but not a conventional ‘boy-meets-girl and they’re soulmates and they live happy ever after’ story.
The epigraph to The Essex Serpent references Montaigne’s On Friendship and the theme is the lifeblood of the novel, particularly the concept of friendship as “indivisible from love.” For Perry what is really fascinating are blurred distinctions, the fault-lines of rich and complicated human interaction and how “the intimacy of friendship can so easily slide into the intimacy of romantic love.” It’s something she thinks is less fashionable in the twenty-first century where she believes we have become “somewhat puritanical - expected to have your monogamous partner and intimate relationships” to the exclusion of all others and “friendships outside of that, tend to be slightly frowned upon.”
Certainly The Essex Serpent is a complex web of shifting and pleasingly fluid relationships, Perry talks animatedly about her aim to “write about as many different kinds of friendship love as I could find. Ones which blur the boundaries between romantic love and friendship, seeing sexual desire as something cathartic and benevolent, even when it’s not connected to any kind of romantic attachment. I still maintain that Cora and Will are basically friends but that their friendship is capacious and different and subject to change - as human relationships are.”