Ancient civilizations believed that the eyes are the windows to the soul; thus, Cupid, when he sent his arrow, aimed for the eyes so that it might reach its target and inflict a case of love. Yes, the eyes have it has ruled the lovelorn for centuries, transforming them from lonely and lost into found and fulfilled.
Through time, in the realms of nobility and privilege, the eyes determined who might become the beloved. In fact, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a feminist and writer from the seventeenth century, realizing that her granddaughter was plain, advised her daughter to teach the child to love reading. With only a modest annual income to bring to a marriage and worse, a plain face, the grandchild would most likely never marry. She needed something to occupy her time because as a lady from a family of Lords and Ladies, she would have little else to do besides a bit of needlework, some time spent drawing or playing the piano, and walking in the park. Reading would allow her to occupy hours of her long, leisurely days.
Miss Jane Bennett, the loveliest of five daughters in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice can expect a good match in spite her parents’ spendthrift past. Expecting, with every pregnancy, a boy, the Bennett parents never feared becoming homeless, but they had only girls and a will that delivered the home and surrounding property into the hands of the closest male relative, leaving the Bennett girls homeless and nearly penniless unless they marry a solid man with a good annual income.
Bingley, a very rich man, falls for Jane before he knows anything about her character or her opinion of him. He falls in love at first sight because the lady is lovely beyond all measure. Lizzie, less lovely than Jane, but lovely nevertheless, draws the eye of Darcy, the richest man in Lizzie and Jane’s section of the English countryside. He likes her spunk as much as he likes her looks.
You may recall that love finds a way once all the mistaken notions and manipulative relatives have been conquered. Then Bingley professes his deep, abiding love for Jane and she reciprocates. Darcy, for the second time, confesses his love for Lizzie, and she welcomes him as her future husband. But if you haven’t read the book, you may not realize that these protestations of love are based upon the slightest acquaintance. Looks and money were the principal considerations when upperclass men and women selected life partners in England, well through the nineteenth centuries. In other words, the eyes and pocketbooks ruled the day.
Although hard to believe, falling in love at first sight, provided the lady or gent had the proper financials, has been the preferred match-making method for much longer than soul mates, eHarmony, or long engagements, and growing in love was more common than falling in love. Jane Austen echoes many other wise and witty writers when she advises that “it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life” (Pride and Prejudice).
Others offering similar advice recommend not looking too closely before marriage so as not to notice blemishes of any kind--annoying habits, unattractive features, or deficits in characters. Then, Joseph Addison in particular, declares that after marriage, the lover should labor to transform any of those blemishes into endearments and treasures, a beautiful way of saying that even those entering into marriage by arrangement and contract may expect deep and abiding happiness if they define their purpose as learning to love the stranger who has become the beloved, a transformation that often begins in getting acquainted, and learning to like the person, letting go of judgments and seeing clearly the best qualities the person has to offer; in other words, it begins in friendship. This then matures into a deep, abiding love, one that approaches the divine in its selflessless.
Many authors beside Austen have celebrated love at first sight as a good beginning for a lifetime of happiness if the couple will bring their best selves to the marriage and seek the best in each other. Look for this pattern in literature.
Read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, paying particular attention to the transformation in Olivia from vain and detached to humble and passionate as love takes hold of her.
HBO produced a fine film version of Twelfth Night that I defy anyone not to enjoy. Another romantic film that takes the lover from adoration at first sight to agape is the animated film, Wall-E. Watch it with a tissue in hand.
Write three marriage proposals, the first from a person afflicted at first sight, the second from a friend who has grown to love the other romantically, and the third from a selfless lover with a touch of the divine (see post from June 22, 2012).
GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):
In the post above, I wrote out the century number; e.g., nineteenth century or twenty-first century. I prefer the look of the word in formal, analytical essays, but writing 19th century or 21st century is also correct.