Most of us are accustomed to love triangles as being a standard part of the majority of modern romantic comedy films, however this has been around for considerably longer than originally thought. Although it has been used by writers (or poets as they were known in Ancient times) since Ancient Greek literature the development of feminist perspectives in the Victorian era allows it to take on a new meaning.
There are clearly two ways Victorian writers create love triangles: two men vying for a woman’s affections, or two women vying for a man’s. Which one they choose depends on the particular representation of the two genders that they are trying to evince in their writing. Emily Bronte explores gender through this type of love rivalry in Wuthering Heights in a particularly interesting way as she utilises both of the above forms and does so in a way that makes the reader sympathetic towards women as well as making them strong characters. Cathy Earnshaw is sought after by two men (Heathcliff and Edgar Linton) and is free to make her own decision regarding her future husband. This commences well until Cathy is forced by Heathcliff to realise that in marrying Linton she has defied her true nature which is bound to him. The mental turmoil she then succumbs to eventually leads to her death as she cannot lie with this inner tension. Thus, although Bronte creates Cathy as a seemingly independent, strong woman her death is induced by the power this love triangle has over her. Indeed, this book has another triangle in which the wrong choice is made, however this time not unwittingly. This is between Heathcliff, Cathy and Isabella Linton. Heathcliff’s intentional abuse of Isabella’s feelings in marrying her to secure property and because he cannot marry Cathy (thus making her the second choice) serves as an example of the cruelty of men in the art of love in the Victorian era.
Another writer who particularly likes the use of love triangles is Thomas Hardy. Both Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd explore the nature of men through their differing attitudes towards love. Hardy uses this arrangement to comment socially upon the transition between traditional ways and the coming of the “Golden Age”. In Tess the contrast between the new age and the old is highlighted with the characters of Angel and Alec D’Uberville. Although there is this foundational contrast between the two they are both morally corrupt, which highlights the fact that neither traditional ideals nor modern ones are morally and socially appropriate; perhaps an amalgamation of the two is more ideal. Thus Hardy utilises the love triangle between these two men and Tess to not only explore the social context of womanhood in the late 1800s but also that of masculinity in a sexual context.
Furthermore, Austen uses this form of relationship struggle to highlight the way in which a woman ought to behave in her novel Mansfield Park. Fanny Price and Mary Crawford vie for Edmund Bertram’s attention, but in the end Fanny secures the position of being his wife because of her inner purity and piety. Austen here socially condemns the modern way of life with drinking, gambling and doing perverse things in large towns, especially London. Mary’s character ensconces immorality at a simplistic life with her utter refutation of religion as well as leading a nice, rural life. Thus, this love triangle exposes the idea that cohering to modern ideals will not secure you a lover; you must stay true to being good.
To conclude, at the centre of these and many other Victorian love triangles I have not mentioned is not love. Instead these authors are exposing that to secure what one strives for in life (that is, a life partner in those days) one must have a keen moral sensibility and use it to do what is socially, as well as religiously, correct.