PC 242 What Is This Thing Called Love?

Ella Fitzgerald sang: “What is this thing called love? This funny thing called love? Just who can solve its mystery? Why should it make a fool of me?”

We have all, I hope, fallen in love with another human (Note 1) and experienced the waves of inexplicable emotions that wash over us. Some love affairs are short in duration, intense and all-consuming, with others, like the slow-cooking of a shoulder of lamb in the bottom of the oven for hours, one’s aware of changes to how you feel about someone and the appetite and longing grow. The freedom to love, and give love in return, is a very basic instinct. So when desire goes against societal convention, familial customs and unwritten class boundaries there is, often, a tragic but foreseen ending; “This is not going to end well!”

Romeo + Juliet (1996) Directed by Baz Luhrmann Shown: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet must be the most well-known of the doomed love tales, this one fictional. His Montagues and Capulets are powerful families in Verona, fighting to gain civic control. Romeo, a Montague, sees Juliet, a Capulet probably aged just 14, (note 2) at a ball, where she is resisting the advances of the much older Count Paris (Note 3). Romeo falls head over heels in love, there’s the famous balcony scene, and then the following day they get married (as you do!). Romeo gets involved in a duel, is forced into exile but manages to consummate his marriage before fleeing; got his priorities right! Paris tries his luck again and Juliet, in an effort to put him off, gets Friar Lawrence to give her some potion to fake her death, for 24 hours! Before the friar is able to tell Romeo of the trick being played on Paris, Romeo hears she’s died. He buys some poison, kills Paris, then commits suicide. Juliet wakes up, finds Romeo dead and stabs herself. The End! God! How exhausting!

A recent letter in The Times suggested this is a tale of silly teenagers, prone to act on impulse without thought for the consequences. However you see it, it has stood the test of time since being written around 1594;  the bare bones of the story have featured in some 32 films, the last one ‘Romeo & Juliet’ in 2013.

Shakespeare got the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses published in 8AD. He wrote about Pyramus and Thisbe, children of rival families in the city of Babylon, who fall in love by talking through the party wall between their homes (Note 4). They arrange a secret tryst; Thisbe arrives first but is scared off by a lioness devouring a recent kill. As she flees, she drops her cloak which the lioness rips and plays with, covering it with the blood of her kill. Pyramus arrives, sees the cloak and, thinking 2 plus 2 equals 4, believes Thisbe’s been eaten and kills himself. She finds his body under a white mulberry bush, now covered with her lover’s blood. Her heart broken, Thisbe later kills herself with the same sword. The gods are so moved that the colour of the Mulberry fruit is forever changed to blood red!

If you have never been to Denmark, a particular story of doomed love may have passed you by. I had explored a great deal of the Danish coastline sailing, but many years ago undertook a trip by car, looking at some of the pretty villages that dot the landscape. It was a cool, rain-swept summer afternoon when I visited the little Landet cemetery on the islet of Tasinge, just south of the town of Svendborg. As water dripped off the leaves of a magnificent oak tree, I looked for the grave of two lovers.

The islet of Tasinge on the south of Fyn

I had heard that Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21in C is sometimes referred to as the ‘Elvira Madigan’. Further research revealed that its Andante movement had been used in the soundtrack of the 1967 film of the same name. So who was Elvira Madigan? Actually it was the stage name of a Danish tightrope walker called Hedvig Eleonore Jensen, born in 1867, who performed in her step-father’s travelling circus.

In the audience one evening is Swedish Lieutenant Count Bengt Sixten Sparre, a member of the Swedish aristocracy, married with two children. Sparre falls madly in love with Elvira, abandons his family and career and embarks on what he imagines will be an idyllic love affair. For a while it lasts, but eventually they find themselves living on Tasinge, barely surviving on handouts from the local population. As their situation becomes more desperate they see death as the only option; Hedvig is only 21when she was shot by Sixten, who then killed himself.    

Such is the draw of these tragic stories that the original individual graves, hers marked by white marble and his by grey granite to recognise they were not married, were moved together in a circular pavement design only 8 years ago.

Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier on the left

My regular readers I hope appreciate these scribbles are not simply created two hours before posting and that I love coincidences? Well, imagine my surprise when I saw the news article, above, about Monaco in today’s Times, as the following was written on Monday:

Grace Kelly was one of the highest-paid and most respected actresses in the world, having starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ and ‘Dial M for Murder’. The American film star met Prince Rainier III while she was filming ‘To Catch a Thief’ on the French Riviera in 1955. Rainier needed a bride and an heir, hopefully in that order, as without the latter Monaco would become part of France. (For today’s news, see Note 5) Fortunately love blossomed and they married in 1956, producing three children, Caroline, Albert and Stéphanie. 

Tragedy struck on 13th September 1982, when Princess Grace suffered a stroke as she and her younger daughter were driving along the steep cliffs of the Côte d’Azur region of southern France. The car spun off the cliff’s edge and plunged down a 45-foot embankment. Mother and daughter were rushed to a hospital, where Princess Grace spent 24 hours in a coma before being taken off life support, dead at the age of 52. Princess Stéphanie suffered a hairline fracture of a vertebra but survived the crash. Rainier was heartbroken and never remarried; he died in 2005.

(This collection will be continued)

Richard 6th August 2021


Note 1 Love of another human is one thing but for some of us the love of an animal lifts one to a different level.

Note 2 The UK government has pledged to raise the legal age someone can get married to 18. The ‘age of consent’, the legal age someone can have sex, is 16. These ages vary enormously across the diverse global cultures.

Note 3 He is named after Paris, Prince of Troy, in Homer’s Illiad.

Note 4 Whether in a terrace or between semi-detached houses, the ‘common’ wall is known as the party wall.

Note 5 Lovely coincidence in today’s Times. Count Louis de Causans, a German descendant of Honoré III, from whom the current ruler Albert is descended, is claiming compensation from the French State. He argues that, in the early C20th, it pressured Prince Louis II to ‘find an heir’ to prevent the principality falling into German hands! An illegitimate daughter was adopted and gave birth to Prince Rainier.

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