Monday, February 14, 2011

A Vindication of Love

A Vindication of Love: reclaiming romance for the twenty-first century / Christina Nehring
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 2010.
352 p.

This was a book that made me think, that challenged me to reconsider some of my opinions, and to argue with the author as I was reading. It is a lengthy defense of the power of love, drawing in many examples of passionate (often doomed) relationships from history. It focuses on passion and danger and the benefits of throwing yourself in headfirst into relationship, really going mad for love and not holding back for practicality. It was good reading, overall, but I felt the title was misleading -- it should have been called "A Vindication of Passion" because Nehring's focus is really on that passionate blindness of a mad love affair.

Not everyone will experience such a love affair, and not everyone wants to. Some people are quite satisfied with the quiet, mundane partnership that Nehring dismisses in her book as not really indicative of love. While I see her argument for the power of passion, I don't think it necessitates denigrating other forms of love as equally worthy. Passion is not the only form that true love takes.

That caveat aside, I enjoyed reading this book -- a perfect choice to ponder on Valentine's Day. I am not a big celebrator of Valentine's Day, but neither am I a sour cynic who thinks anyone who does celebrate is silly or sentimental. Why not have a day that celebrates the power of love? Anything that helps people open up and feel gratitude and appreciation for others is a good thing.
This book posits that the modern domesticity of marriage and relationship, the measured sense of equality, has damaged the nature of desire and the erotic. That women, despite feminist gains, can and should love madly as part of our feminism. Nehring takes inspiration from many historical figures, such as Mary Wollstonecroft, whose famous A Vindication of the Rights of Women seems to have influenced the title of this book. That sense that a thinking woman and a proponent of rights for women could throw herself madly into multiple doomed relationships and still be a valid example for us to follow today is what Nehring is tracing throughout this book.

Mary Wollstonecroft, Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath, Heloise, Margaret Fuller, Edna St Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson.... the list goes on. Nehring believes that the capacity of such women to fling themselves into passionate relationships, or even passionate dreams of relationship, is reflected in their artistic or intellectual output. The stronger their sense of passion, the wider and sharper their accomplishment. While I concede her argument that passion in one area can reveal a passionate personality in many areas, I am not sure that conflating mad passion with romance or 'true love' really works. As Meghan O'Rourke stated in her review of this book (in Slate)

There are many flaws in Nehring's argument. For one thing, not everyone wants to lead a "heroic" life. Plenty of people in steadfast marriages may yearn for flashes of passion but prefer, ultimately, the repetitive pleasure of routine and domesticity, or get from their children the passionate expansion of vision Nehring believes romantic love offers us. Security needn't mean a diminishment in passion...
And that is my basic problem with the book. Sometimes the arguments don't feel too convincing, at times sounding a little bit more dissertation than general interest. But, I still enjoyed reading it and seeing things anew, seeing things from the perspective of someone whose ideas of love are quite different from my own. I appreciated her discussion of women's situations in the past, how a predilection for passion did negatively affect the way writing women were perceived, in a way that men with similar habits never had to worry about. Margaret Fuller was pilloried for marrying an Italian younger than herself, so much so that when she and her husband and her new son were drowned on their way back to the United States, there were murmurs that perhaps it was for the best, after all. Accepting her into society would have been a bit of a problem for those who eagerly invited and entertained men with illegitimate children and mistresses galore.

It is an intriguing read, and one that I am sure I'll reread as well; it shakes up perceptions and enlivens discussion, certainly. Nehring lives her passion as well as writes about it, and it shows through -- her argument sweeps across the pages of this book in a great rush, bringing up examples and making grand statements, sometimes a bit melodramatic but also with a refreshing certainty in her opinions.

Well worth a go if you are interested in passion as an element of feminism, in historical women, in the idea of love itself. Thanks to HarperCollins for providing me with a copy to enjoy.


  1. I like a book with which I can argue, but from what you say here I think there might be too many sweeping generalisations in this for me. A good argument needs to be based on solid fact, I think.

  2. Annie - there was some support for her arguments, but at times it did feel a bit ingenuous to me. Lots of good ideas to have a discussion about, though...

  3. This sounds intriguing. Thanks for the review!

  4. Kailana - it was thought provoking. Glad I found it!


Thanks for stopping by ~ I always enjoy hearing your comments so please feel free to leave some!