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.