Marital Upstarts

Sobering lessons from revolutionary marriages.

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Life is short, but marriage is long, long even when it’s over soon. “Marriage is time”: Joan Didion’s deep thought—true of any marriage, however long it lasts—echoes through Katie Roiphe’s book—”Marriage is time.” Every marriage makes a legend of itself, a fable of how it began, a myth of metamorphosis, a saga of rise or fall. Marriage is the memory of an anticipation and the anticipation of a memory, a history of visions and revisions that cannot be divorced.

To tell stories of other people’s marriages: what a temptation—what a relief!—but also what an opportunity. It is a chance to get outside your own life and to study the riddles from a distance, those riddles that Roiphe names as “the fluctuations and shifts in attraction, the mysteries of lasting affection, the endurance and changes in love, and the role of friendship in marriage.” But which couples do you watch? It’s almost like choosing a spouse, to select the marriages to unfurl in a book. Roiphe’s splendid and sparky idea is to revive the lives of a revolutionary generation that came to maturity just before World War I. At the moment of Modernism, more was at stake than the transformative art of Picasso, Stein, Joyce, Woolf, and Proust. The reinvention of private life was equally a vocation and a lure—as it is among us, too. Roiphe looks back to another country in another century, but she undisguisedly wants to understand what marriage can be for us now, for her now. At a time when the future of marriage is misty and obscure—heterosexual couples divorcing in droves, while gay and lesbian couples clamor for the ceremony—Roiphe presses her difficult questions. In our fantasies of romance, do we ask too much of marriage? In our cult of freedom, do we give too little? And, after all, “What unmitigated bliss, one does wonder, were we expecting?”

Seven “modern” partnerships move through the book, all in (or near) the world of art and letters, including those of Vanessa and Clive Bell, Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, H.G. and Jane Wells, Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge, Vera Brittain and George Catlin. In different but always striking ways, each looked to transform the terms of intimacy. Some were discreet about the change—the publicly noisy Wells concealed his mistress Rebecca West and the son they had together—while others were open and unembarrassed: Vera Brittain lived in one of the “semi-detached marriages” that she praised in the papers. But nearly all these couples resolved to escape the heaviness of patriarchy and the exclusiveness of romance, what D.H. Lawrence once called “hunting in couples.” They wanted to get beyond possessiveness, to love freely not contractually, and to follow desire where it led, even if toward the extramarital lovers who shadow these marriages, shadow them and change their lights. These romantic duets must often turn out to be trios—that is, when they’re not quartets.

“There is, after all, something majestic in witnessing the entire sweep of a marriage”—Roiphe is not only right about this; she is also skillful and fluent enough to negotiate the sweep seven times. Her method is to have each chapter pivot around a “crisis” in the marriage, a stress point when a relationship must change or die. The goal is not to uncover new secrets about her subjects. She aims instead to convert the heavy biographical tomes of previous scholars, each big enough to kill the cat, into quick-paced stories that can play off one another and in this way to ask how the hopes of marriage can survive boredom, betrayal, hypocrisy, honesty. To follow the course of the Wells marriage, as Herbert George (H.G.) brightly conducts a series of affairs with vivid women, while housebound Jane remains the indispensable helpmeet; to watch the eddies inside the spirals of Vanessa Bell’s marriage to Clive, her affair with Roger Fry, her long love for Duncan Grant; to hear the pleasures and agonies of Katherine Mansfield who loves, writes, and dies young, while she and John Middleton Murry perfect styles of distance between them—is first to cringe, but then to chew the lower lip, pondering. The human impulse to seek world-transfiguring love is breathtaking, but no more than the capacity to inflict life-annihilating pain.

Beliefs are what we hold. Desires are what hold us. A sadness that recurs often in these stories is the sadness of belief that misjudges desire, deliberate reasoned progressive belief—belief in perfect honesty, perfect tolerance—that thinks itself grander and stronger than desire. But the hope of a “reasonable” ménage, as Roiphe puts it, finds itself thwarted by the “rogue emotions of jealousy, disappointment, and rage.” She quotes John Maynard Keynes’ remark that “we all want both to have and not to have husbands and wives” and observes that Vera Brittan “wanted conventional family life, and she wanted unconventional freedom.” Repeatedly, the frank, open, liberated, and reasonable agreement—to see marriage not as constraint but as a joint experiment in personal liberty—turns to ash. Of the triangle mapped by Rebecca West and the Wellses, we read that “each believed they could overcome the petty jealousies that plague ordinary people. But tradition ended up exerting too great a pull on all of them. The classical model of husband and wife cast too great a shadow for them to resist.” The independent West wanted to marry Wells, but the independent Wells chose his patient wife over his impatient lover. Roiphe shows how Radclyffe Hall takes up the role of patriarchal husband toward both of her partners in an enduring “trio lesbienne” and how Elizabeth von Arnim is dangerously drawn to Lord John Russell’s flourish of aristocratic authority. In one form or another, the relapse to conventionality is the epidemic that spreads among Roiphe’s Moderns.

An obvious inspiration behind Uncommon Arrangements, warmly acknowledged, is Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives of 1983, a study of five Victorian marriages, among them the unions between Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. Rose’s book was urged forward on a feminist inspiration: to look at the struggle against Victorian patriarchy in close detail and to see how men and especially women negotiated, parried, refused, surrendered, or resisted, as part of a long historical effort to make marriage a reciprocity. At the close of Parallel Lives, Rose named her heroines, above all Jane Welsh, who “went down fighting, demanding equal time, and writing about it all in marvelous prose which just might outlast her husband’s.”

Roiphe has no heroines, or heroes. Her generation of Moderns repudiated the concession and compromise of Rose’s Victorians. Then they paid for their bolt to freedom. Something old and intractable came curdling back. And it’s not only that the Moderns broke with the Victorians but also that Roiphe breaks with Rose without acknowledging it—breaks, that is, with a feminist generation that called on women to struggle against their sexual victimization within marriage. Roiphe’s men and women are equally responsible for the circuit of rogue emotions; they are co-manufacturers of the desires that make a mockery of beliefs. No feminist affirmation guides these pages, only a pre-ethical respect for the ferocity of individuals in pursuing what they need.

In her first book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus (1993), Roiphe became famous/notorious for resisting claims of women’s victimhood, for poking academic feminism in the eye, and for calling on women to acknowledge power in their sexuality. While it’s true that the media used her as a prop, she was no victim either; she made that bed. Then she remade it. Her novel Still She Haunts Me (2001) was a fictional reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s (that is, Charles Dodgson’s) hopeless infatuation for Alice Liddell, a passion that Roiphe reads as begetting Alice in Wonderland just to the extent that it ravaged Dodgson. The dare of the novel is the way it sympathetically imagined something that looks like pedophilia. Even as young Alice discovers the surprise of her body, Dodgson is baffled by his desires, frightened of them, but also fascinated and inspired by them.

Now in Uncommon Arrangements she turns to the lives of articulate women and men, who lived (and documented) the hope and doom of love. The polemic of the early career is gone, replaced by curiosity, fascination, absorption. In a preface as interesting as any of the rich chapters, Roiphe disarmingly admits that her interests are “largely selfish”: she wants to extract practical advice from the stories and, despite what she was taught in graduate school, to read for personal understanding. And yet by the end of the book, no lessons have been taught, no consolation offered to the “bewilderment” of our own moment. The only sure positive value is the work of imagination to redeem life’s dullness and the will to record emotion—to write it—even among the ruins.

Why, though, should anyone be surprised that disasters occur, or that ambitious and hopeful marriages fail? The surprise is that they carry on, tack to windward, sail after swamping. Only one of these partnerships suffered a sharp break (von Arnim and Russell), but though the others survive, they disappear from Roiphe’s pages in varying phases of estrangement—distance, inscrutability, unspoken regret, unvoiced love—together but semi-detached. But how different does that make them? The least plausible sentence in the book is this one (concerning Elizabeth von Arnim and her husband, Lord John Russell): “She was either rapturously happy with Russell or completely wretched: there was little of that pleasant, nondescript stability that constitutes the bulk of human relationships.” Sorry, but that’s not a bulk I happen to know. Every marriage is operatic. None is nondescript, none a stroll in the park. All are startling even in their continuities, and tense even in shared expectations. In its best moments, Uncommon Arrangements sees just this, sees that its theatrical marriages—its rapturous/wretched few—are not seven rare specimens after all, and are only special in the need to memorialize every glory, each failure. All marriages are uncommon arrangements.