The "Old Love" of Jeffrey Archer is a unique amorous tale between two brilliant students of English literature from Oxford. Archer makes an exploration of the theme of love from a completely unusual standpoint. The rendition is fiercely honest while he portrays a chronic sense of envy and rivalry between two sworn arch-rivals in the Oxford University: William Hatchard and Philippa Jameson. Initially, their aggressive competition unsettles their tutor Simon Jakes. In their constant intellectual debates, Philippa confronted the deep, confident voice of William with her high-heeled boldness. The mutual hatred was absolute. Their sharply perceptive and analytical mind refused to be submissive to each other. Indeed, this fierce sense of competition enabled them to outshine everyone else in the field. Given the background of 1930's she, to him, was "that silly woman" and he "that arrogant man". Yet strange is the way of destiny that an unusual love story should blossom between the bitterest of academic rivals!
This rivalry assumed an unpalatable intensity when both excelled as toppers in their final degree exam. The Charles Oldham Shakespeare's essay writing competition fed fat to this fire of passionate jealousy and became a life and death question for each to defeat the other.There were liberal exchanges of scornful remarks between the two to play each other down. However, things took a dramatic turn when William unwittingly discovered about the death of Philippa's father (who was a Vicar) from cancer, and also, his secret dream to let his daughter study in Oxford and win the Charles Oldham award. The sight of silent sobbing of his proud and powerful adversary stirred up a sudden feelings of empathy in his guts. He got over his tentative doubts and offered to accompany her to her village for the burial ceremony. They held hand for the first time and discovered the new bond of friendship as they started their journey to her village. They communicated with each other spontaneously while returning to Oxford which bounces Philippa back to her normal competitive spirit. She slowly discovers the growth of her new found intense attraction for William. The latter secretly enjoys this interesting conversion in the Vicar's daughter.
The transformation of hatred into love has always been a captivating subject in itself, and Archer makes the situation entertaining with the employment of sparkling wit in their conversation. They make a visit to Stratford and have meals together. But their first date was far from usual: it is a unique blend of warmth and intellectual antagonism! If this instinctive antagonism triggered a strong sense of hatred before, now it drew them closer. In fact, this killer instinct became a delirious source of entertainment for both. Archer makes the reader question if intense hatred could indeed be an expression of hidden attraction?
Anyway, the situation takes a quirky turn while returning from Stratford. On their way back to Oxford, Phillipa and William had to spend the night in a car as the petrol gauge showed empty. The former obviously did not miss the chance of expressing her doubt about the cerebral power of a person who couldn't even read a petrol gauge! The day next William gave her the reason why he let the car run out of petrol: He said with a rare sense of humor: "My father told me if I spent the night with a barmaid then I should simply order an extra pint of beer , but if I spent the night with the vicar's daughter, I would have to marry her. " He came down on his knees and said, "Will you marry me if I win the Charles Oldham?" Philippa answered that "as there is absolutely no fear of that happening I can safely say, yes …" When William declared his love for her she told him not to show his face in Somerville again if he failed to win Charles Oldham. The readers wonder if the writer reveals Philippa's secret wish that she could marry himeven at the cost of losing Charles Oldham! Otherwise why would tears come to Philippa's eyes when a girl informed her that she had won? It was a moment of crisis for her because between the conflicting emotion of ambition and love in her heart, the latter had won and for once the proud girl confessed, "I do love nothing in the world so well as you; is that not strange ? "
However, when she discovered that William was a joint winner, her puckish spirit returned as she said "I take thee for pity" to which William replied "I yield upon great persuasion …" They were locked in a passionate embrace, and after that, they were never apart for more than a few hours. Strangely, their honeymoon in Athens ended up in a heated argument over the relative significance of Doric and Ionic architecture!
Later in life, this constant battle of wit prevented their romance from dwindling into boredom and banality. Their serious research works and creative activities, though on different fields, kept them deeply connected. After three years, "with well-received D. Phils", they moved on, in tandem, to college teaching. But their fierce encounters continued and their sharp wit at each other's expense would flash across the dinner tables at Oxford. However, those who understood their love felt envious of their unique relationship! They were childless yet their life was not tasteless.
Returning home after the celebration dinner (being declared the Joint Professor), their heated argument over Proust's monumental work took such an intimidating turn, that a policeman, nearby, asked Philippa "Is everything all right madam?" "No, it is not", William declared "this woman has been attacking me for over 30 years, and to date the police have done deplorably little to protect me". Yet, beneath this apparent antagonism, their bond continued to grow stronger with each passing year. Interestingly, their intense love was inseparable from their zealous intellectual antagonism which lent a peculiar aura to their relationship. When Philippa was made the Dame of the British Empire, William referred to her as an "Old Dame" he had to live with now. It is this bitter-sweet flavor of their love which defines their marriage.
The most irritable habit of Philippa to William was her determination each morning to complete "The Times" crossword before he arrived at the breakfast table. One fine morning in June, William, studying the clue, filled in the eight boxes left incomplete by Philippa. Philippa's instantly retorted that there was no such word. To the delight of Philippa the word " Whym Wham" could not be found in the shorter Oxford Dictionary. William assured her that the word could be found in OED on his desk, made for scholars like him. William left the breakfast table with sharp comments on Philippa's limited command of English language and that she will have to eat a humble pie at Somerville's Gaudy Feast as she reads the collected works of John Skelton …
William left with a sigh, kissing his wife on her cheek, wishing he had lost Charles Oldham. Philippa replied that he did indeed because it was highly inappropriate during those days to declare a woman as the sole winner! Having closed the front door, as she entered the kitchen, Dame Philippa suddenly suffered her lone heart attack. She called out to William hoarsely but in vain. The news of her death was conveyed and the story ends with a note of dark humor in the suicidal note of Sir William (who shot himself with his pistol): "Forgive me, but I had to let her know". There was the volume of the work of John Skelton held open in one of his hand with the word " Whym Wham" underlined neatly, his fingers stiff and cold around it. Such weird ending, subtly hints at the essence of special relationship this couple shared so that they rise above the great marriage vow "TILL DEATH DO US PART." Archer's love story excels because death could not part Sir William and Dame Philippa! Even while following his wife to her grave, William felt the need to camouflage the inseparable bond they shared, and the insufferable loneliness he would feel without her … he does it with a wry sense of humor!