I do ... don’t I?
By Isabel Berwick
Published: January 8 2010 23:06 | Last updated: January 8 2010 23:06
|A detail from ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’ by Jan van Eyck (1434)|
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Bloomsbury £12.99, 304 pages
FT Bookshop price: £10.39
Couples: The Truth
By Kate Figes
Virago £14.99, 416 pages
FT Bookshop price: £11.99
The English Marriage: Tales of Love, Money and Adultery
By Maureen Waller
John Murray £25, 420 pages
FT Bookshop price: £20
As I said in my wedding speech, while ruefully acknowledging the cliché, getting married is a giant leap into the unknown. Just as it is the anticipation of giving birth – rather than the profound life-shift once the baby arrives – that makes first-time pregnant women anxious, so it is that a wedding day to organise always gets in the way of consideration of long-term married life. A wedding day is a public event, a rite of passage. What comes afterwards, the modern marriage, is a private and unknowable realm on the other side of the contractual fence.
Historically, there have been plenty of books about marriage, practical “how-to” manuals offering guidance on conduct, housekeeping and sex. Until very recently, a wife had a clear-cut role she was expected to fulfil – and so did her husband. “Undoubtably the husband hath power over the wife, and the wife ought to be subject to the husband in all things”, wrote Hannah Woolley, the author of The Gentlewoman’s Companion: A Guide to the Female Sex (1675). But we have, unsurprisingly, moved on from those rigid expectations.
A fundamental shift is that women, in particular, seem to have transferred the focus of their relationship anxiety on to child-rearing: parenting books are published by the shelfload and bought by singles and couples alike. Few now bother with practical books about marriage. And if we no longer feel we need to get married to have children, what is the point of modern marriage?
In this British election year it is a question that both the Conservative and Labour parties are showing signs of wanting to answer, both eager to emphasise the importance of marriage and family stability. Publishing, too, seems to have caught the hint that traditional marriage is coming back in to vogue, producing new books offering 21st-century views of the institution. These are not exactly how-to guides, or self-help books, but something just as useful, although less didactic. I would describe them not so much as marital aids as bedside companions for the married and marriage-curious.
A prime example of this new genre is Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage. This is partly a what-happened-next memoir. Eat, Pray, Love – the tale of Gilbert’s post-divorce journey through depression and loneliness towards spiritual enlightenment and new love free of the shackles of marriage – has sold more than 7m copies worldwide. A film of the book, starring Julia Roberts, is due for release later this year.
In Committed, Gilbert combines the story of her relationship with Felipe – a Brazilian she meets at the end of Eat, Pray, Love – with an examination of her aversion to getting married again, in the hope of overcoming it. There are references to published studies and books, including one she especially likes by the aristocratic English writer Ferdinand Mount, who, according to Gilbert, “suggests all marriages are automatic acts of subversion against authority”. She also includes anecdotes from her family history and encounters on her travels.
Most compellingly, Gilbert puts herself at the centre of the tale, making a virtue of solipsism (“I require an amount of devotional attention that would have made Marie Antoinette blush”). Felipe is 17 years Gilbert’s senior. He’s divorced, she’s divorced, and they live together in the US. Then the Department of Homeland Security gets involved. Felipe is deported and, in order to live in the US, Gilbert and Felipe will have to be investigated and, if approved, they will have to get married – immediately. So the couple starts the legal process, and goes travelling around south-east Asia: it’s a tense period.
In one of the book’s funniest scenes, Gilbert visits a Hmong village in Vietnam in search of advice on marriage from the women who live there. She questions them about how they met their husbands, when they fell in love and so on – but meets only blank looks. “ ‘And what do you believe is the secret to a happy marriage?’ I asked earnestly. Now they all really did lose it. Even the grandmother was openly howling with laughter,” Gilbert recounts.
This reaction gives Gilbert an insight into what made her attitude so incomprehensible to her village hosts, and sets modern western marriage apart from anything that has gone before: “Here’s my theory: Neither the grandmother, nor any other woman in that room, was placing her marriage at the centre of her emotional biography in any way that was remotely familiar to me. In the modern western world ... the person whom you choose to marry is perhaps the single most vivid representation of your own personality.”
Gilbert delves deep into the history and cultural meanings of marriage, as well as into her own relationship, which leads to the central question: “Why – when marriage has been shown again and again to be disproportionately disadvantageous to them – [do] so many women still long for it so deeply”? Gilbert turns to those of her friends who are single but long to find husbands to ask why they yearn for marriage. Their replies include “the desire to feel chosen” and the urge for a public wedding.
Gilbert finally makes peace with marriage by linking it to intimacy – “Every couple in the world has the potential over time to become a small and isolated nation of two – creating their own culture, their own language, and their own moral code, to which no one else can be privy.” The book ends with a quiet and happy wedding.
The author and journalist Kate Figes’s new work, Couples: The Truth, is a book about how people live, rather than a “how to” self-help book. Figes interviewed 120 British couples (including married, cohabiting and same-sex partners) and intertwines their revelations with personal asides and conclusions she draws from her research.
Figes, who is married, confesses that her book is inevitably “influenced by 20 years of a contented relationship”. The work is an insight into modern partnerships, the truth about which is hidden: “Few understand”, she writes, “what really goes on in other people’s relationships behind that ‘glass shade’ EM Forster refers to in Howards End, which ‘cuts off married people from the world’.”
Overall, she finds the statistic that one in three marriages ends in divorce to be misleading in that it includes second and third marriages, which are more likely to fail than first marriages. It also depends how old you are when you get married – younger marriages are more likely to fail. The overall divorce rate, Figes says, is around 15 per cent. She concludes that “people’s desire for lifelong commitment within relationship is not diminished by the presumed ease of divorce; rather, it is stronger than ever”.
Figes does not believe marriage is the only model for long-term commitment, and is interested in emotional lives within all sorts of relationships, rather than the symbolic meaning of marriage itself – which is what obsesses Gilbert.
But Figes is insightful on our current notion of romantic love and the fairytale romance of a big white wedding – a subject also explored in Rebecca Mead’s 2007 book One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding. Some women want to get married because of the wedding – and this feeds into inflated expectations of marriage as a long-term romantic idyll. Set against such rosy dreams, reality can be crushingly dull.
As recently as the 1950s, weddings were austere affairs, costing about £600 in today’s terms. The average British wedding now costs £25,000, Figes says. As the ties of family, shared religion and local community recede, Figes highlights how the totemic value of the wedding day looms very large in our culture: “We know that placing all our bets on lifelong love is risky but if the day is perfect we might just be able to beat the odds by laying the best seeds superstitiously for the future.”
While the interviews give meat to Figes’s book, the sheer number of people involved makes confusing reading. The same couples pop up in different chapters and one struggles to remember which ones they were. At times the quotes feel repetitive.
It is the author’s own thoughts on marriage and relationships that are most illuminating. Her chapter on “September Days” – couples in old age, and facing terminal illness and bereavement – is very moving. As she says, “The triumph of love lies in the small daily kindnesses and considerations, which make one feel valued, seen and understood, not in the great romantic, gushing gestures.”
Historical writer Maureen Waller’s latest book The English Marriage: Tales of Love, Money and Adultery provides a useful contrast to the analyses of contemporary marriage and relationships offered by Gilbert and Figes – as well as plenty of fodder for those who don’t like the idea of marriage.
Waller reminds us that the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 – along with the Divorce Act of 1857 – liberated women considerably. Before these acts, unhappy marriages were almost impossible to dissolve and the husband had all the advantages. The property act meant women could keep the assets they had brought to the marriage, rather than their husbands having them by right even after separation. (The laws of ancient Rome were more favourable to wives than those of England.)
Waller’s wonderfully lively book brings to life the story of English marriage through accounts of mainly upper-class matches made for money or social advancement. Many of the wives Waller writes about were extremely spirited but are left powerless. Husbands could do whatever they wanted with and to their wives, and, until the late 18th century, there were private madhouses “where men could lock up their wives, no questions asked”. For the middle and lower classes, marriage was a way to respectability, guilt-free sex, legitimised children and a means to avoid poverty – an unmarried woman was an unwanted drain on family resources.
While modern marriage offers all parties a lot more liberation, the sheer weight of its historical baggage is almost too much to contemplate, such is its past injustice to women. Our easily dissolved and diverse models of coupledom may avoid these negatives but they raise another question – why do so many stay together? It all comes back, as Gilbert and Figes conclude, to intimacy. Perhaps this is the new buzzword for what promises to be a less inflated, less dreamy decade.
Intimacy is a shared script, the secret pillow talk, and the quotidian routines of bringing up children and holding down jobs. It may start with romantic love but, with luck and hard work, grows to have a firmer foundation than the passing fancies of romance. As Figes says, “Lasting intimacy is good for our health and sense of wellbeing, and investing in that relationship could be the best insurance policy of our lives.” Intimacy may even be another word for maturity in a marriage. We marry because we need and hope to grow old together.
Isabel Berwick is associate editor of Life & Arts
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