Love Unfortunate and Unfortunate Love

by Jessica C. Murphy (2007)

The “Love Unfortunate” category of Pepys’s collection contains 170 ballads that cover a wide array of topics that range from the danger of false promises to love-sickness to meddling parents to the effects of war on love. Many of these stories might at first glance seem to be the “unpleasant” alternatives to the tales of the “Love Pleasant” ballads. But, of course, Pepys did not name this category “Love Unpleasant.” That Pepys preserved his use of “Unfortunate” even in the combination category of volume 4, “Love Pleasant and Unfortunate,” suggests that he chose this word carefully. Despite the variety of content, the ballads in this category share a concern both with the fickleness of fortune and its cyclical nature: what goes around comes around. Often, the ballads rely on a variety of narrative stances to mediate the reader/listener's experience of the tales. Moreover, somewhat unexpectedly, the ballads reveal that it is the love—not the lovers—that is “not favoured by fortune; meeting with bad fortune; suffering mishaps or mischance.”1

Many of the ballads in this category are preoccupied with the misfortune associated with women’s virginity. The ruined maid who has given away her virginity only to be forsaken is as common a trope in this category as the “hard-hearted” virgin who will not grant a man his suit. In “The Lovers Invitation; Or The Forsaken Batchelors Complaint” (4.46, EBBA 21712), the “forsaken batchelor” complains that the woman he loves will not love him back. He tells her, “Great Nature made you for increase, / and things not us’d, their Luster loose.” The bachelor does not get what he desires and is doomed to “Sigh his days away in grief.” In this case the bachelor suffers from love unfortunate.

Though both men and women suffer from love unfortunate, women who believe the promises that men make are punished more severely and more often than the men who make those promises. False promises made by men are the subject of “A Love-sick maids song, lately beguild, By a run-away Lover that left her with Childe” (1.371, EBBA 20020). In this ballad, the “love-sick maid” laments her abandonment by the father of her child both through the language of courtly love—“Alas and well away”—and through the imagery and tropes of courtly love—“My heart within doth bleede, / with sorrow griefe and paine.” The “love-sick maid” concludes her song with a warning to all women: “I wish you all beware, / And of the flattering tongue, / To have a speciall care” (1.371). The tragic stories that comprise this category are often meant as warnings. According to these ballads, it is a woman’s responsibility to guard her own virginity, and if she does not guard it well, the consequences are brutal. Before she dies, in “Olimpa’s Unfortunate Love; Or, Gallius his treacherous Cruelty” (3.354, EBBA 21369), Olimpa cautions, “she that once has try’d it, / will never love again.” Olimpa’s death, then, is a consequence of her loss of virginity, and is meant to warn other virgins to make better choices. In early modern culture a woman unloved is like a woman dead, and that is in fact Olimpa’s end.2 The ballads in which a forsaken woman dies reflect a preoccupation with female sexuality that characterizes much literature of the early modern period.3

Because it is the love that is unfortunate, not necessarily the lover, the forsaken woman does not always die. In “The Injur’d Lady, Or the hard hearted Gentleman” (5.292, EBBA 22127), an unmarried pregnant woman exiles herself from her friends and family only to be taken up by sympathetic women: “Then taken up I was by Women-kind, / Whose Friendship they did show, Nature did bind.” Although the twins she bears “caused [her] much care,” she does not die as a result of her ruin. Underlying this story is the hope that an “Injur’d Lady” can find a new and kinder community after being cast out of society by her family and friends.

Family and friends are often the cause of misfortune, but, as is characteristic of this category, they are usually repaid for their involvement. For example, meddling parents in the Love Unfortunate ballads are often punished by the death of their children. “The two Nottinghamshire Lovers” (1.356-357, EBBA 20166) tells the story of two lovers who plan to meet illicitly because the young woman’s friends and family are opposed to the match. The young man’s tardiness convinces the woman he is not coming and that her friends and family were right all along. She kills herself out of despair. When the man arrives to find his lover dead, he kills himself too. Instead of warning lovers not to disobey their parents, the ballad's moral is for the parents. “The two Nottinghamshire Lovers” warns: “Let other Parents now, / Not seeke to break a vow. . . / Lest . . . / . . . They worke their lives decay.”

Not all of the ballads in this category are tragic in tone, however; sometimes retribution is comical. For example, “The Contriving Love: Or, The Fortunate Mistake” (5.293, EBBA 22128) tells the story of a young woman whose parents attempt to keep her and her lover apart. The lover uses a basket in the chimney to communicate with and visit the young woman, and eventually they are able to satisfy “their eager passions.” They are almost caught when the young woman’s mother sends her husband in to see about the “Tell-tale Bed-cords” (that is, the creaking of the bed), but the young woman tricks him with a prayer. When he returns to his bedroom, the father accuses the mother of being “an ill-tong’d Beast” for slandering their daughter. The mother, convinced about her suspicions, decides to go into the daughter's room herself. The mother’s penalty is both violent and farcical:

She happen’d to stumble at a Stool,
Did into th’ Lovers Basket fall:
Up was drawn the poor Old Woman,
      who in th’ Basket Screaming lay.

Because she cannot help but listen to the tattling of the “tell-tale” bedsprings the mother becomes a meddler. To lie screaming in the basket, in this ballad’s terms, is an appropriate punishment for a character whose crime the ballad sees as meddling. However, the tone of the narrator (“the poor Old Woman“) shows that because the mother does not succeed in keeping the lovers apart, her punishment is less severe than in the tragic stories.

Narrators in this category are often as much a part of the action of a story as they are part of our access to that story. For example, “Love without Lucke, or the Maidens Misfortune” (1.348-349, EBBA 20162) opens with the setting of an idyllic scene by the narrator: it is springtime, everything is in bloom, and lovers are everywhere. The narrator is not part of a couple but “Singling myself alone” when he comes upon a crying “Beautious One.” This woman, whose lament stands in stark contrast to the blooming scene of love set by the first stanzas of the ballad, is beautiful enough to invite the narrator’s involvement; he vows to help her: “tell me, where lives the Man / could be so cruel, / Ile . . . force him marry thee.” The narrator cannot help, however, and it is the maid who finishes the ballad with a warning to women to hold onto their chastity. The narrator in this case reveals that it is impossible to stop the cycle of fortune once it is set in motion—his attempts to assist are as fruitless as the reader/listener’s would be. In addition to the interceding narrator, ballads in the category use a narrator who eavesdrops (i.e. 3.319, EBBA 21334), a narrator who reports, but is uninvolved (i.e. 3.363, EBBA 21379), a direct lament (i.e. 4.46, EBBA 21712), and a written letter (i.e. 5.280, EBBA 22113). These different narrative strategies are part of the way these ballads guide the reader/listener to the achievement of balance through the cycle of fortune.

Attempting to achieve just such a balance in “An Excellent New Song Called the Cruel Lover, Or, The Constant Virgin’s Lamentation” (5.295, EBBA 22131), the “Constant Virgin” calls on the intercessory “powers of love” to right the wrong that her “Dear” has done her:

Cupid shoot an arrow, quickly pierse him thorow,
Make him make him feel what I indure,
For ‘tis only he that caus’d my misery,
And tis he alone can kill or cure.

The equilibrium that the virgin asks for is what concerns many of the ballads in Pepys’s Love Unfortunate category. Although love unfortunate is not always necessarily tragic, these ballads remind us that what goes around comes around. As “The Leicester-shire Tragedy” (5.296, EBBA 22132) warns, “See that you are not false in Love / For there’s a Righteous God above / Who will no doubt just Vengeance take.”

1 Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 ed., s.v. “unfortunate, a. and n.”

2 For example, see Theseus's conflation of the nunnery with death in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1.1.83-90).

3 For a good overview of the situation of single women in particular in early modern England, see Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler eds., The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation (Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2003).