29 February 2024

‘There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy’: an extract from Gillian Rose’s ‘Love’s Work’

Posted by Gillian Rose

Gillian Rose’s classic memoir Love’s Work is being rereleased this month by Penguin Classics. Written in the wake of her terminal cancer diagnosis, this short, powerful book combines the personal and the philosophical to ask the unanswerable question: how is a life best lived? As Marina Warner described it in the London Review of Books on its 1995 publication, ‘in the compass of a scant 135 pages it provokes, inspires and illuminates more profoundly than many a bulky volume, and confronts the great subjects – death, illness, reason and unreason, family strife and family bonds, friendship and betrayal, today’s political abdication and philosophical cowardice, the limits of feminism, of happiness – and it delivers what its title promises, a new allegory about love.’


However satisfying writing is – that mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control – it is a very poor substitute indeed for the joy and the agony of loving. Of there being someone who loves and desires you, and he glories in his love and desire, and you glory in his ever-strange being, which comes up against you, and disappears, again and again, surprising you with difficulties and with bounty. To lose this is the greatest loss, a loss for which there is no consolation. There can only be that twin passion – the passion of faith.

The more innocent I sound, the more enraged and invested I am.

In personal life, people have absolute power over each other, whereas in professional life, beyond the terms of the contract, people have authority, the power to make one another comply in ways which may be perceived as legitimate or illegitimate. In personal life, regardless of any covenant, one party may initiate a unilateral and fundamental change in the terms of relating without renegotiating them, and further, refusing even to acknowledge the change. Imagine how a beloved child or dog would respond, if the Lover turned away. There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. To be at someone’s mercy is dialectical damage: they may be merciful and they may be merciless. Yet each party, woman, man, the child in each, and their child, is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability. You may be less powerful than the whole world, but you are always more powerful than yourself.

Love in the submission of power.

I am highly qualified in unhappy love affairs. My earliest unhappy love affair was with Roy Rogers. I loved him so much that it caused me acute physical pain just to think of him, and the high point of every week was watching his programme on television. It was no coincidence that the programme was broadcast weekly on Saturday afternoons at exactly the time I was due, fortnightly, to see my father. Yet, this unabashedly aggressive love, intoxicated with defiance, was an achievement. Prior to its development, I had vomited every other Friday, ostensibly over the fried, breadcrumbed plaice to which the household was habituated for the sake of Ann, who was an Irish Catholic, but, virtually, in anticipation of the dreaded Saturday afternoons.

My desire to possess Roy Rogers for my love was inseparable from my equally unshakeable desire to be him: I wanted to be and to have. My mother set off to Harrods to purchase a cowboy outfit for me. She was stopped in her tracks when the toy department assistant routinely enquired, ‘How old is your little boy?’ But I was not daunted and was busy anyway training myself to urinate from a standing position. My father was not amused. And in this exceptional case, my mother, for reasons of her own (her fear of my burgeoning gender proclivities), put an end to the affair, and so acted in my father’s interest, too. She told me that, as an English female, the closest aspiration I could entertain to my ambition, not to grow up to be, but to assume immediately the life of a cowboy, was to become a milkmaid. The lot of Dale Evans, my erstwhile rival, was not to my liking. Heartbroken, I put away my two pistols in their plastic holsters with other childish things. I preferred to renounce my love fantasy altogether rather than embrace the reduced reality held out to me. Inauspicious beginning to the long, gruelling ordeals of love to come.

Happy love is happy after its own fashion: it discovers the store of wonders untold, for it is the intercourse of power with love and of might with grace. Nothing is foreign to it: it tarries with the negative; it dallies with the mundane, and it is ready for the unexpected. All unhappy loves are alike. I can tell the story of one former unhappy love to cover all my other unhappy loves – in particular, the one that is ruining me at present. The unhappiest love is a happy love that has now become unhappy.

I discovered that behind my early idealisation of men and dependence on them, there lurked a rage at having been deserted by my fathers, and at their having allowed my mother to dispose of them. Then I discovered the even more deep-seated corollary in the lack of independence of my carefully chosen current lover. I have observed in some of my women friends that their principled anger arising from the history of their oppression by father, husband, lover, covers up the deeper but unknown rage at the carefully chosen impotence of the current partner.


The new edition of Love’s Work by Gillian Rose is published by Penguin Classics on 14 March. Pre-order your copy here.

Books mentioned in this blog post