Clearly it’s issue week here at the reading room. I saw this discussion going around and urge you to read Emily’s great post and the post that started it. What could be more emotive and complex, more of a discursive minefield, than fidelity in marriage? Hence the topic became irresistible to me. It’s also been one of the main plot lines of narrative for the past couple of hundred years, which also indicates that it’s offered an intriguing knot of psychological and societal factors to many skilled writers. If an issue starts to dominate creative fiction you can bet it involves an explosive combination of emotions within a structure of constraint and regulation and reflects profoundly on questions of existential significance. But I get ahead of myself here; let’s look at a story instead.
My favourite adultery novel dates back to the seventeenth century and is the story of the formidable Princesse de Cleves. She is a young noblewoman brought to the Court of France to find a husband and is dutifully married off by her mother to a suitable chap. Now, given that marriage in the time of the story is fundamentally a political alliance, a means of amassing land or climbing social ladders, the court is a hotbed of intrigue; appearances must be maintained but taking lovers is routine behaviour. However, the Princess de Cleves’ mother has higher aspirations for her daughter than just a glitzy marriage; when she’s on her deathbed, with the full force of maternal emotional blackmail behind her, she insists that the Princesse should remain virtuous: Love your husband and be loved by him, she commands, for that is the only route to happiness. Naturally it is not long after this that the Princess meets the man of her dreams, the dashing womanizer, the Comte de Nemours. He’s up for anything, but the Princesse, mindful of her mother’s wishes, resists all but a little flirting. Inevitably the Princesse’s husband finds out and, unable to believe in his wife’s unusual virtue, he is convinced that she has been unfaithful; the marriage is stained and he dies not long afterwards. Now, here’s the rub: the Princesse has no reason not to marry Nemours but when he comes to propose she turns him down flat. They’ve had the best of their romance, she reasons, in the fantasies they’ve entertained about one another. To try to live those dreams would inevitably result in disappointment and tedium, the beauty of their virtual love sullied by the workaday world of reality. When the novel was published it caused something of a stir because its audience simply did not believe the Princess to be a plausible character. No one, surely, would act the way she did? But this was also the seventeenth century, the classical age, when taming passions with the power of the mind was much admired. The story of the Princess has lasted so long, I think, because it manages to inhabit precisely that uncomfortable fissure between the ideals of self-control and the down-to-earth view of human desire that has worried away at the self-image of the human race ever since.
So what does the Princesse teach us about adultery? Well, she tells us two awkwardly incompatible things. The first is that we bother with relationships at all to assuage desires that are fundamental to being human, so fundamental in fact that people generally have trouble believing that anyone can live without their satisfaction. The second is that those desires are bound up in romance, in fantasy, and that they have little to do with the day to day banality that is intrinsic to a marriage. In other words, marriage is not the solution to certain kinds of deep-rooted desires, although it is offered to us as though it were. Now, don’t get me wrong, marriage is the answer to a number of other, pressing problems: it’s about teamwork and support, it’s the best basis for raising children, it offers companionship and security, and none of these things are negligible. In fact in the right combination, they can offer the kind of fulfillment that is far more valuable than those exquisitely piercing demands of the self. But that doesn’t account for all those adulterous narratives. So we might begin to consider what’s so important about the desires that adultery does satisfy, and for that we have a shelfload of nineteenth century novels to help us along.
Hands up who wants to be a terrible warning – Emma Bovary? Effi Briest? Anna Karenina? If we take a chaise longue full of adulteresses we can see the paradoxical patterns of nineteenth century society start to fall into place. All of these women were trapped in claustrophobic situations, married without resources to men who utterly failed to appreciate them, who provided them with the houses and the food they could not survive without, but never gave them the affection, the recognition, the adoration they could not feel alive without. Adultery in this era is a study of tragedy provoked by the intolerable state of female incarceration in a supposedly free world – these women are all effectively imprisoned by the laws of their time. But it’s also a comment on the way that people are altering their perceptions of themselves. What really begins to bite in the nineteenth century is commerce; all those industrial revolutions, the concept of shops, paid-for entertainment, a class based on new money, these changes make people aware in a way they have never been before of the notion of value. And so, adultery fascinates authors because it reminds them how essential the sense of value is to the individual and that even beyond marriage commercialism swarms in the black market place of infidelity. Hence, also, the fascination with the adulteress, because women had no way to experience themselves as valuable except in relation to the desire they could provoke.
And so, whilst there are many factors that influence adultery, I do wonder whether the greatest of them all is a desire for self-validation. You are probably saying no, no that cannot be true. But it’s difficult otherwise to explain the continued interest in adultery in literature as we head into the twentieth century and a loosening of the marriage bonds. Why are we still fascinated with what’s happening in an affair when nowadays it’s the simplest procedure to get a divorce? It has to be because what is at stake is a sense of self-worth, a yearning to be valuable, a longing for a kind of ideal, loving relationship at the height of its splendour (but which cannot be sustained without the continual input of fantasy) that remains intrinsic to our happiness. I think that people who get sucked into an affair are having trouble with their self-esteem, for whatever reason that may be, chronic or acute. And precisely because they are experiencing trouble with their own value they do not dare to alter the image they present to the external world. Rather than confront their partner, expose their neediness or vulnerability, walk out of their job, sob, wail or rage, it’s so much easier to outsource the emotion and have it dealt with by a third party. So I do think that by the time we reach the end of the twentieth century, adultery has shape-shifted within the bonds of society once again, and now it represents a bid for self-validation but in a way that also seeks to keep the original marriage together. Adultery becomes a flying buttress on the institution of marriage, however destructive it may at first seem.
None of this is to say it’s a good idea. The sensible thing to do is to have it out with the spouse, or find other ways of feeling valuable that don’t require external input, but marriage is such a sensible condition that it this may feel like misrecognising the madness of the feelings from which the actions stem. And anyway, affairs are their own punishment; if they embody cherished ideals, they’re in trouble from the start. The Princesse is undoubtedly right – it takes a lot of avoidance strategies to prevent beautiful fantasies from being trampled into the muck and dust of reality. I also think that no one (beyond the age of childhood) should ever be considered a victim. Marriage is a funny old state. That degree of commitment unleashes all kinds of profound needs and emotions and expectations and yet there is nowhere much for them to go in the daily grind of grocery shopping, work, childcare. It’s no wonder that leaving the top off the toothpaste becomes the focal point for extraordinary, excessive rage. But it’s also the place where you get to know another person in their every last detail, if you choose to notice. Divorce hurts so much partly because the other party knows more about you than anyone ever should be allowed to. If free brainwashing came with divorce there’d be a lot of happier people around. But I think that level of intimacy is important and you neglect it at your own cost. No one ever said it was easy, and sometimes life makes it impossible, but without the continual interaction of emotional weather reports, resentment balance accounts, contentment ratings indexes, then a marriage falls into formality and risks becoming the kind of structural shell that needs propping up from the outside. And the two partners to a marriage take equal responsibility for that.
I told my husband what I thought. ‘What a sissy, girlie way of looking at it,’ he said. And there may have been something in there about my obsession with personal responsibility, I can’t recall. ‘Men are very quiet about adultery,’ he added, ‘because they know it’s in their natures. I could just decide selfishly that it was what I wanted and for no better reason than I could do it.’ I was highly entertained by this image he was concocting of himself as a super stud. ‘So what would you do if a woman at work started to sidle up to you from time to time, and made goo-goo eyes at you and suggested you meet up later for a coffee?’ I asked. The same kind of look came into his eyes as I imagine on baby deer who find themselves face to face with a hunter and a cocked shotgun. ‘I’d run away,’ he replied. Quite. He isn’t the faithless type, and if he did find someone else naturally I would be outraged, and furious and devastated and want to feel like a victim and demand recompense, and somewhere below all these roiling, festering layers would be the disquieting knowledge that I had seriously failed to meet his needs. Well, it’s only my opinion and maybe there are people out there who lie and cheat mercilessly, who act out of greed and rampant egotism, who embrace irrationality and transgression for the sheer hell of it. But I can’t help but feel that for many people, it’s the equivalent of unblocking an impasse, or bursting out of a stifling cocoon to expand a hidden part of themselves in warmth and air, only to find that what they have really done is pull the plug from a hand grenade. Few situations invite the spectator to judge so readily as adultery, but as with so many of the awful situations people get themselves into, I do feel the better response is compassion all round.