Marriage à la Mode

Hands-down best non-fiction book of the year so far, and I did so want to be able to hate it. Katie Roiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements shines an illuminating spotlight on seven literary marriages that took place between 1910 and the Second World War. Each case study is meticulously researched and you never feel that Roiphe is taking liberties with her characters; instead she manages the difficult balance of being deliciously gossipy and yet perceptively insightful. The relationships are brought to vivid life almost as if the reader had been plunged into a novel, and yet we are fully aware of the genuine risks and challenges these people faced when they experimented so audaciously with marriage; and after all, only the truth could be so very strange. It’s very much the kind of book I wish I could write, and it would have been nice (for me) to say it was flawed; alas, it isn’t. It’s quite brilliantly done and completely compelling.

Katie Roiphe has been very clever with her choice of historical period. This is the time between the stranglehold of religion in the nineteenth century and the imperative to be normal and like everyone else that has dominated social mores from the second half of the twentieth century onwards. In this brief era the world was changing fast, and everything was ripe for renewal. Feminism had given educated women a broader sense of their own capabilities and artistic eccentricity was still viewed reasonably indulgently. If you had enough money then you could still guarantee your freedom and your privacy. Roiphe’s unusual unions are all between writers who offer the great advantage of writing down everything that they experience, partly in letters, partly in memoirs and novels. They had the talent and the intelligence to record sensitively and insightfully what they were going through, even if they didn’t always have the wit to change their dreadful circumstances for good ones. But this was also a passionate era, tinged with romantic longings for absolutes and shot through with scientific desires for experimentation. The result was some extraordinary relationships that were often sacrificed to the very ordinary pitfalls of jealousy, resentment and possessiveness.

Within the book’s pages we find the story of H. G. Wells, notorious womaniser, Rebecca West, the impetuous young author who bore him a son, and H. G.’s long-suffering wife, Jane, a true angel in the house, who kept him in the domestic harmony he was so accustomed to. Rebecca West longed to write and viewed her young son as an unfortunate impediment; he was shipped off to boarding school at the age of four, and grew up to be a writer himself, denouncing his mother’s behaviour in no uncertain terms. There is the story of Vanessa and Clive Bell, whose semi-detached marriage allowed for the inclusion of the critic, Roger Fry, and then the homosexual artist, Duncan Grant, whom Vanessa persuaded to father her daughter, Angelica, although Angelica had no idea until she was finally told, aged 17. There is the strained union of Katherine Mansfield and John Murray Middleton, a marriage that functioned only when the two were living in different places, for the powerful bond that stitched them together was one of aggrandising, childish fantasy. These stories I knew a little about before I read them, although I learned incomparably more afterwards.

Then there are the relationships that were quite new to me, Vera Brittain, managing with blunt determination to keep Winifred Holtby by her side because she felt she was conducive to the right creative spirit, even if it meant leaving her husband to cool his heels on the other side of the Atlantic. And the ghastly Radcliffe Hall, who took her role as masterful head of the household to the extreme of including a young Russian mistress (who wasn’t too thrilled with the arrangement and milked it financially for all she was worth). Ottoline and Philip Morrell, another couple doomed by Ottoline’s extreme romanticism, and Elizabeth von Arnim, somehow married again to a powerful bully, John Francis Russell, who had numerous affairs but took out a lawsuit against Arnim when she finally left him for his infidelity.

What I loved about this book is the way Roiphe manages to tell such a different story each time. She brings out the differences in circumstances and contexts and is highly attentive to the specific troubles each eccentric relationship suffers. Equally admirable is her steadfast refusal to judge; instead you really feel her finding her way towards a sympathetic portrayal of her often prickly and awkward characters. Although she never sugar coats them, and the monsters of the bunch – Radclyffe Hall and John Russell Francis spring to mind – are clear for all to see. After reading the book I looked up a few reviews online and was amused to see how the reviewers had extracted different messages. The American reviews pointed out that despite the trials that the women writers went through, they often managed to be impressively productive, and the reviewers glorified the stoicism brought to that urgent desire to write and to experiment despite the consequences. The British reviewers focused on the undeniable grief that the arrangements had caused their parties and wondered whether all concerned wouldn’t have been much happier if they’d stuck with orthodox relations. What I think this goes to show is that this even-handed book invites all sorts of responses; you can admire the grit and courage of the experiments, or shake your head over their foolishness, because both are valid reactions. That’s what the best non-fiction does, I think: if fiction tells clever stories, then non-fiction takes stories apart in clever ways. Beautifully written and hugely accessible, this is definitely a book I’ll be reading again one day.

16 thoughts on “Marriage à la Mode

  1. Right onto the wish list it goes! Relationship experimentation in and outside of marriage is of particular interest to me, and it sounds like Roiphe does a great job here with presenting the diversity of dynamics present across these different marriages. And your comments on Radclyffe Hall especially – butch/femme dynamics are pretty fascinating to me in the way they walk the line (well, sometimes veer wildly to one side of it or the other) between being liberating for those involved and simply replicating the problematic power dynamics of traditional patriarchal norms.

    The differences you found between American and British critics are pretty hilarious, especially (to me) the American focus on impressive productivity.

  2. This has to be added to my list. I’m fascinated by human relationships and marriages are the relationships that seem to have the most layers to them. Hearing about real people and their marriages and what it cost them artistically is very compelling to me. I must admit I am ignorant of a few of the people here but the book would just send me off to read other things and that is always the sign of a great non-fiction read for me.

  3. How come you wanted to hate it? I want to hate it too, but to the extent that I don’t know if I’ll ever read it. I really can’t stand Katie Roiphe. She writes articles for Slate.com now and then, and I have read very few that I haven’t found intensely irritating.:/

    On the other hand, I am interested in this claim about Radclyffe Hall being a monster! What was so terrible about her? I know nothing at all about her life.

  4. Interesting period from the turn of the 20th C. to WWII. I’m reading A Moveable Feast right now after watching Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris.” It’s interesting to observe how (in the movie… yet to find out from the book) Hemingway disapproved of Zelda Fitzgerald, thinking she hindered F. Scott’s creativity and talents… while the latter tried to balance love for his wife and goodwill between friends.

    As for the difference between American and British reviews, your observation has pointed me to think of the example of a glass half full or half empty, positive or negative, optimism and pessimism… or is it just me?😉

  5. Wow…Now I want this one. I planned to read some non-fiction next and was going to start John Adams by David McCullough, but I’ll be wanting to rush through it just to get this one.

  6. Me too! I want it as well. I don’t know why you wanted to hate it? Because she wrote “your book”? I think I’m missing something. I don’t know her. Ah, I see, Jenny explains it a bit… Awful people do write great books occasionally.

  7. I have long, but idly, thought that there are not enough novels that explore happy marriages. Of course, fiction has to have tension, but surely, maintaining such a marriage must involve some difficulty. It occurs to me that the relationships in Roiphe’s book might have something to add to this question — happy marriages are probably all very different, Tolstoy notwithstanding. It must have taken some courage to defy social norms to create marriages that were as individual as the people within them. I can’t wait to read this book!

  8. Emily – lol! true, and when did it become a crime to be upset by upsetting things? Ah well. I would love to know what you make of this book. There has been so much fascinating non-fiction coming out recently around literary topics, what with the Montaigne book, and now this (and I have the book The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, which I can’t wait to get to). I really love this sort of writing, and delighted to find someone else who does, too!

    Kathleen – there was SO much I didn’t know before reading this book, and whilst most of the names were familiar to me, I hadn’t read any of their books (which I will definitely be rectifying as soon as possible!). I really love the way that good non-fiction sends the reader scurrying off to research new fields that have just opened up. That’s such a nice feeling. And I, too, am sold when marriage is the topic under discussion. I’d love to know what you make of this!

    Jenny – My old head of department used to say that when someone came up to her and said ‘I did so enjoy your last book’ she felt it was a flimsy sort of compliment, compared to the person who came up to her and said ‘I hate you. That book you wrote was the book I should have written!’. She felt that was a REAL compliment. So, not quite falling in with my Head of Department’s dark imagination, I nevertheless wanted to hate the book because if it had been bad, I could have thought comfortingly to myself, ah, now that’s a book I could write and do better. But I know now I could not, no way. I don’t have any feelings personally about Katie Roiphe as I don’t think I’ve ever read her before now. As for Radclyffe Hall, it’s too long a story. But she doesn’t come across too well.

    Arti – I do so want to see that film. The biography I read of Zelda and Scott said much the same thing about Hemingway – that he thought Zelda was bad for Scott’s creativity. The biography seemed to suggest Scott was more of a loose cannon. I really liked A Movable Feast, though, when I read it. As for optimism and pessimism, I don’t think I dare go there! Perhaps it’s a post for another day.🙂

    Lilian – I am just wired up to think comparatively!🙂

    Grad – yes, I think you might like this one. Roiphe is very good at being completely non-judgemental, and I think that’s so essential when picking though the minefield of these complex, difficult relationships.

    Caroline – really, I have no idea what Katie Roiphe is like as a person. It was much more intended to poke fun at myself for wishing I could have written this book – and hoping that it would be flawed so that I might still be able to! But it’s very good, so I’ll have to find another topic to write about.

    Lily – I think you are quite right that not enough is written about happy marriages (although I wonder whether any marriage that lasts twenty, thirty years can ever be consistently happy because the passage of time doesn’t usually work that way), or at least marriages that manage to make contentment a default position. That must be quite a work of art. And anyway, ooh marriage, such a fascinating topic. I’d love to know what you think of this if you get hold of a copy.

  9. Oh, this sounds so good! How am I ever going to get everything read if you keep adding books to my TBR pile? I just can’t read fast enough. I guess I am going to have to give up sleeping in order to get more reading time in.

  10. This sounds great! I’ve had it on my TBR listl for a while, but I’m going to look harder for a copy and try to read it sooner rather than later. You made me laugh about wanting to dislike the book. That you didn’t is a testament to how good it is!

  11. Fascinating subject matter, both because of the marriages it describes and the literary focus. I often wonder about marriages and how people make them work for such long periods. And all too often they don’t work (or work in some ways but not in others). I’ll definitely have to read this one.

  12. Oh, shakes fist at the people who write just the book you want to write. Damn you and your creative awesomeness! It does sound intriguing, although I wonder are there any relationships that work out for everyone in this book (or is that not really the point of this book, maybe it’s all about examining the ones that go wrong). I’d love to see some unorthodox relationships that do work out well for everyone, if that’s possible.

  13. Stefanie – lol! You should see the size of my tbr pile. I’ve just, ahem, invested in some books from an online site that sells sets of 10 novels together for cheap (£10!) and my son felt obliged to do a lot of head shaking over them!🙂 I had better join you in sleeping a few hours less every night!

    Dorothy – oh it really is. I thought of you when reading this, because I know you have the same taste I do for that mix of biography and literature. I’d love to know what you think of it if you do get hold of a copy.

    Pete – for all of us students of the married condition, it is MOST interesting. And it sort of makes you feel better because there are such apocalyptic screw-ups among the stories! Particular fun for those of us with some psychoanalytic reading under the belt – Roiphe doesn’t go there in her analyses, but we can.😉

    Jodie – I know just what you mean – wouldn’t it be great to find unorthodox relationships that really did work? Alas, there aren’t too many on offer in this book, although Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby did pretty well, and even Vanessa Bell managed to keep every lover she’d ever had in an extended family circle. People sort of got what they wanted, but often at quite a cost. I did laugh at your comment about shaking your fist, thank you for the solidarity, my friend! Oh and I can’t find a comment I know you left here but YES to reading When God Was A Rabbit in the first week of September. I’ll email you!

    • Fab I look forward to reading with you! Oh and it turns out I was confused about having ‘In Cold Blood’ and actually was thinking of my copy of ‘The Black Dahlia’. Same genre at least I guess, but it means no July Capote readalong for me😦

  14. Pingback: Katie Roiphe, Uncommon Arrangements (2007) « Smithereens

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