Wednesday, 11 June 2014


Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife and the soon-to-be-published The Swan Daughter. Here as a guest on Paula's People, she chooses her five favourite ill-fated marriages in fiction and shares her love of them.

As I researched life for women during the 11th century whilst working on The Handfasted Wife, I reflected on the many works of literature that include ill-fated marriages and relationships. Edith Swan-Neck was set aside by King Harold II when he was crowned king in 1066. In the context of The Handfasted Wife, Edith retains her love for King Harold long after his death at the Battle of Hastings. Whether a marriage was a love-match or was arranged, ill-fated matches in literature often reflect the realities of life past and present. An old adage bears the truth that the course of love is rarely smooth. Here are a few of my favourite novels that contain ill-fated relationships.  
Dorethea Brooke and Edward Casaubon from Middlemarch by George Eliot        
Middlemarch is one of my favourite classics. Although it is not a romantic novel it is a passionate one. Dorothea Brooke, idealistic, young and beautiful, orphaned and intent on making something of her life weds the idealistic, stuffy clergyman Edward Casaubon. She wants to dedicate herself to the great man who spends his time writing a Key to All Mythologies. That they are ill fated is illustrated by their honeymoon in Italy when Dorothea expected to be overcome by emotion for all she sees in Rome and is tearful. Casaubon, on the other hand, has the sense that his new wife is not a protection against his sense of inadequacy but rather a perpetual threat and reproach. This novel endures for me because the central relationship is subtly recounted with humanity as are the other pairings that its pages contain, all filled with traps like a spider’s web.

Lara and Yuri from Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
I read this novel over and over for my finals in Russian Studies and I still love it. This epic story setting spans the early decades of 20th century Russia in turmoil. Its unfortunate marriages are those between Lara and Pasha and Yuri and Tonya. However, Lara and Yuri love each other passionately from their earliest encounters. They are separated by class, by their marriages, by war. As the couple finally come together in a country retreat in the Urals, personal and political events that frame this sweeping novel overtake them. Yet it is war-torn Russia that adds to the intensity of their love.The relationship is all the more poignant because their time together is brief.  It is a beautifully written novel and well translated twice, one that brilliantly incorporates a personal story with a thrilling political background. It has influenced my interest in how love survives through war-torn situations, a story with depth on many levels and I discover more emotional truths every time I re-read it.

Henry and Claire from The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Having met first in a Chicago library, Claire and Henry finally marry but he is suddenly whisked way just before the ceremony. An older Henry falls through the years to take his place, an episode full of comedy as many guests do not recognise this is an older Henry. The author cleverly relates levels of intimacy and family life through the medium of time travel back and forward through a marriage. Niffenegger uses time travel to illustrate a sense of slippage that happens in long-term relationships. Each partner sees the life of their
marriage differently. In the story there is a sense that the protagonists’ lives are mapped out for them and that their deaths are foretold. It is an uplifting story, one in which the partners are not separated by the death of one partner in the marriage. I related to this poignant theme when writing The Handfasted Wife. The Time Traveller’s Wife is an intriguing funny, sad, happy and delicious read.

Caroline and Faraday in The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Faraday, a country doctor, is called to Hundred’s Hall, a faded 18th century estate. He strikes up a friendship with Caroline Ayres, the unmarried daughter of the family. What a family they turn out to be. After a child is killed, mauled by Caroline’s previously gentle labrador, all is not as seems. The house has a malevolent energy that ultimately affects the emerging romance between the protagonists.They plan to marry. On the night of their wedding further disaster strikes them. The constant tension Waters develops within the book’s narrative marks out the relationship between Caroline and Faraday as doomed.  I admired the way Waters developed the ill-fated romance as one haunted by a sense of creepily impending dread.

Tristan and Isolde from Peter Ackroyd’s Death of King Arthur
Tristan and Isolde is a classic love triangle. The knight Tristan fetches Iseult from Ireland as wife to King Mark but the couple fall in love because they mistakenly drink a magic potion that was intended for King Mark on his wedding night. Many adventures occur as a result of their love for each other. Tristan, banned from Cornwall, moves to King Arthur’s court and then to Brittany.
There he meets another Isolde whom he marries but he cannot consummate the marriage because of his love for the true Isolde. He falls ill and sends for his love hoping that she can cure him. Sadly, he dies of grief before Isolde can reach him and she dies soon afterwards of a broken heart.  It is a classic story of ill-fated relationships that is often retold beautifully and with humanity. For this and its stories within stories, I love re-reading Tristan and Isolde in all of its retellings.

Carol McGrath

Follow Carol McGrath on Twitter and Daughters of Hastings on Facebook


  1. Thank you Carol for telling us these wonderful tales of Romantic Woe - I now think that should be a genre of its own.

  2. A pleasure. I would love to know what others think of these novels.