So.. you want to avoid anything trite for Valentine’s Day. No heart shaped chocolates, no pink champagne…actually, no pink anything. No flowers unless they’ve been gathered from your actual garden, or someone else’s. So where does that leave the classy romantic? With books, that’s what.
Essentially, any choice that’s based on what you know someone actually likes is touching. So, if you want to please a detective story fancier, Dorothy L Sayer’s Busman’s Honeymoon, might hit the spot … bookmark the wedding night.
There’s also a case for flattery…the poems of Catullus, say (and there are some racy ones), suggest you think the recipient is no dope. But make them work. Put the reference to the poem you want them to read in your card or in the frontispiece. Same goes with a play…if you’re giving someone Much Ado About Nothing, for instance – a gratifying choice - mark the bit you want to draw attention to…Benedict’s promise, 'I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap and be buried in thy eyes' for preference.
The book itself doesn’t’ have be expensive, just an appealing edition. Second hand is fine if tasteful. And a book is a good way to give interest to a standard present…a box of chocolates from Charbonnel and Walker is bound to please, but if you add an inexpensive anthology of love poetry – again, mark the one you like- that makes a good thing better.
And do think through what you’re giving. I know Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are the staples of romantic literature, but really… for Valentine’s Day? Do you want to suggest an affair ends on a railway track? And while I’m a sucker for Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel – all that thwarted passion – sophisticated souls will probably sneer.
A rubbish book is a counter-aphrodisiac. If anyone gives you Sally Rooney’s Normal People, make for the long grass pronto. Make it classy filth.
Here are half a dozen or so suggestions:
Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This is regularly at the top of the most popular love poems, and quite right too. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways? Try to get an edition that doesn’t have a picture of the author on the cover. The most inexpensive version is in the Wordworth Classics edition of the Collected Poems, £5.35.
Poems for Love, ed Gaby Morgan, Macmillan Collector’s Library. I love these compact little editions. This pleasing selection has that famous picture of lovers in Paris by Robert Doisneau on the cover. There’s something in here for everyone.
Another winner in the same imprint is the obvious choice: Shakespeare’s Sonnets… it’s hard to see how you could fail with these and if it doesn’t hit the spot, maybe your love object isn’t the twin soul you thought. Or there’s always the excellent Everyman edition of the poems of John Donne…some of them quite filthy. £9.99.
The Salt Path, Raynor Winn. This was recommended by a friend as an unlikely million-bestseller about a homeless couple who walked the coastal path. A portrait of a loving, companionable marriage of more than 30 years terribly moving because so unselfconscious and unliterary. Penguin, £9.99
Under Storm’s Wing… is Helen Thomas’s memoirs of Edward Thomas: As It Was about their courtship and World Without End about their very short marriage. Carcanet, £18.99
Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s account in letters of a cynical seduction isn’t exactly romantic, but it’s erotic all right, especially when you consider the French Revolution was round the corner. The Penguin edition, with the less appealing English title of Dangerous Liaisons, is a good modern translation, with a usefully suggestive cover. £7.99.
Cyrano de Bergerac. Edmond Rostand's play about the man with the big nose is unbelievably seductive, about the effect of amorous words. If your crush liked the film with Gerard Depardieu, then the play is a winner. Especially for men with big noses. There's a perfectly good inexpensive version by Dover Thrift editions for £2.99.
Stendhal's Scarlet and Black. Another intellectual friend maintains this is the best love story ever written. It's a long, demanding read, and it doesn't have what you might call a happy ending but it's a whopping love story all right. Everyman does a discreetly elegant edition for £9.99.
If the object of your affections is a Bridgerton fan, and they’re everywhere, well steer them away from Julia Quinn with her titles like The Viscount and I, and go for better-written historical fiction. Georgette Heyer is in a different league if you like that kind of thing. Try These Old Shades (£8.99) or The Black Moth (£6.99). No, not literature, but a nice line in period slang and undeniably romantic.