Love and the Novel by Christina Lupton review – an intimate literary journey

For many of us, books are an important part of our lives – but do we want them to change our ideas about how to live? Is there a danger that living alongside fictional narrators will make us too reckless? This may be the case especially when it comes to marriage, given that so many great novels are about adultery.

Recently, “bibliomemoirs” have offered a medium in which to think through the relationship between reading and living. Rebecca Mead has charted her changing relationship with Middlemarch; Sophie Ratcliffe resisted the lure of adultery while reading Anna Karenina; Francis Spufford explored the books that shaped him. Now Christina Lupton entwines her own experience of falling unexpectedly into adulterous love with a woman, aged 48, with her experiences of reading about love in books. In the early stages of this affair, she read frantically, both to seek moral guidance and to be turned on. She was in the middle of writing an introduction to Pride and Prejudice, exploring the many kinds of love explored in Austen’s novel. Urgently, she asked herself if her own love affair was the kind that Elizabeth Bennet would have (rational as well as passionate) or the kind her more self-indulgent sister Lydia would have. And she decided to write a book about the broader relationship between literature and love – from marriage to adultery, parenthood to friendship.

What makes this book so impressive, especially in its early stages, is Lupton’s commitment to understanding the histories of fiction and love as intertwined. Her writing is strongest when she’s considering the 18th and 19th centuries, which are her academic specialisms. “Individual romance love and the novel emerged together in the eighteenth century,” she writes, with novels becoming testing ground for the ideal of original selfhood that was a crucial part of taking love seriously. Arguably there’s plenty of both love and selfhood in Shakespeare’s tragedies, but Lupton argues convincingly that there was a new rigour in this moment – a new determination “to love and to read radically and reasonably”.

I was moved by the feeling that these intellectual questions became painfully urgent for her when she was confronted by her own love affair. In love with Shannon, Lupton tries to work out if this is mere middle-aged lust or if desire is going to lead her to new kinds of truth and selfhood. She has to decide whether just to have an affair and stay married, which her husband is prepared to tolerate, or to give up on the marriage. In the process she confronts the drama of adultery, which is itself bound up with the history of the novel. Critics such as Tony Tanner have worried that as adultery becomes more commonplace, the novel will lose its possibilities for high-stakes drama. Lupton finds that even ordinary adultery in a pretty flexible modern marriage turns her life into a story in ways she can’t resist finding exciting.

Events intervene. Shannon has a stroke which brings a moment of terrifying rupture and then brings the lovers closer. The pandemic arrives, enclosing them fiercely in the world they are building from the books they love and are coming to share. It is clear that Lupton is not going to live the life her parents had after they split up, experimenting with forms of communal life and polyamory. She is drawn once again to a kind of coupledom very close to marriage and family life, even though much of the more radical writing she admires disparages against this.

Some of the book’s later sections don’t have quite the incandescent charge of the early ones. I found the chapter on friendship rather tepid; friendship is I think more open to danger, to abandonment, to rivalry and cruelty than Lupton allows. But the sustained pleasure of the book comes from Lupton’s consistent preparedness to reveal thoughts in progress – thoughts that she knows that in other moods she might disapprove of. She admits to desires for submission and objectification in sex; she admits to being prepared to risk her children’s unhappiness for the sake of her own desires. Her literary canon is rarely especially surprising but she pursues a kind of ingenuous, fantasy-oriented reading that academics rarely allow themselves. “I could imagine … the times when Elizabeth came effortlessly as Darcy applied his hands to her body. Or the times Mr Bennet dressed up as a redcoat for his young wife while she touched herself in pleasure.” We may not always be able to follow Lupton in her fantasies but her openness to living on this high-wire imaginative plane gives her book an intense intimacy of the kind that Lupton celebrates in fiction.

Lara Feigel’s Look! We Have Come Through! – Living with DH Lawrence will be published by Bloomsbury in August. Love and the Novel by Christina Lupton is published by Profile Books (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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