Friday recommendations:

The narrative of marriage

Arthur-rackham-meeting-oberon-titania-img"The Meeting of Oberon and Titania" by Arthur Rackham

I've been re-reading one of my favorite books: Writing a Woman's Life by the late feminist scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun (1926-2003). Ostensibly a survey of the way the lives of famous women have been portrayed by biographers, this slim volume also casts a sharp eye on the way women's stories are told today...and the manner in which such narratives influence the ways that we tell our own stories.

I first encountered the book twenty years ago, and have re-read it several times since, finding new things to ponder within it at each different stage of my own life's journey. This time, I've been struck anew by the chapter on marriage -- for I'm reading it now as a married woman myself (after spending much of my adult life in a more independent state), and thus have fresh interest in Heilbrun's reflections on marriage and its portrayal in women's stories. She writes:

1st edition "It is noteworthy that few works of fiction make marriage their central concern. As Northrup Frye puts it, with his accustomed clarity: 'The heroine who becomes a bride, and eventually, one assumes, a mother, on the last page of a romance, has accommodated herself to the cyclical movement: by her marriage...she completes the cycle and passes out of the story. We are usually given to understand that a happy and well-adjusted sexual life does not concern us as readers.' Fiction has largely rejected marriage as a subject, except in those instances where it is presented as a history of betrayal -- at worst an Updike hell, at best when Auden speaks of it as a game calling for 'patience, foresight, maneuver, like war, like marriage.'  Marriage is very different than fiction presents it as being. We rarely examine its unromantic aspects."

One of the problems of the "romantic plot" (as it's constantly portrayed in our popular culture: in countless contemporary novels, films, t.v. shows, pop songs, etc., etc.) is that it's a narrative that focuses exclusively and relentlessly on the beginning of a relationship -- and then ends at the point of declaration, or conquest, or the exchange of marriage vows. Thus we're encouraged to think of the heady excitement inherent in a brand new attraction as the whole point of love  -- with no interest left over for the intricate dance of a marriage or long-term partnership: the quieter romance of entwined lives spun out over years, over decades, over a lifetime. We are constantly bombarded with stories (films, songs, etc.) that lay down all-too-familiar scripts for how to behave as lovers in the throes of new passion -- but where are the stories (or films, or love songs)  that tell us anything useful about the mysteries of marriage, the challenging work of true partnership?

And does this matter? Well, I think it does. Not everyone is blessed with the model of a functional marriage in their family background, and thus it's to stories we often turn for a glimpse of how else to construct our lives . . . and what we get from most books and films on the subject of marriage is a resounding silence. We're shown over, and over, and over again that it's courtship that counts, and the social pageant of the Wedding Day -- while marriage is a vague, misty, unexplored state, unworthy of drama or art.  Marriage is the end of the tale.

Another quote from Heilbrun's excellent book: 

Carolyn G Heilbrun"Most of us begin, aided by almost every aspect of our culture, hoping for a perfect marriage. What this means is that we accept sexual attractiveness as a clue to finding our way in the labyrinth of marriage. It almost never is. Oddly enough, the media, which promise marriage as the happy ending, almost simultaneously show it, after several years, to be more ending than happy. But the dream lives on that this time will be different.

"Perhaps the reason the truth is so little told is that it sounds quotidian, bourgeois, even like advocating proportion, that most unappealing of all virtues. But E. M. Forester understood this: when someone suggested that truth is halfway between extremes, his answer (in Howards End) was, "No; truth, being alive, was not halfway between anything. It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm, and though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the outset is to ensure sterility." Proportion is the final secret, and that is why all good marriages are what Stanley Cavell calls 'remarriages,' and not lust masquerading as passion."

A little later on, Heilbrun explains what she means by the term "remarriage":

"I have spoken of reinventing marriage, of marriages achieving their rebirth in the middle age of the partners. This phenomenon has been called the 'comedy of remarriage' by Stanley Cavell, whose Pursuits of Happiness, a film book, is perhaps the best marriage manual ever published. One must, however, translate his formulation from the language of Hollywood, in which he developed it, into the language of middle age: less glamour, less supple youth, less fantasyland.  Cavellwrites specifically of Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s in which couples -- one partner is often the dazzling Cary Grant -- learn to value each other, to educate themselves in equality, to remarry. Cavell recognizes that the actresses in these movie -- often the dazzling Katherine Hepburn -- are what made them possible. If read not as an account of beautiful people in hilarious situations, but as a deeply philosophical discussion of marriage, his book contains what are almost aphorisms of marital achievement. For example: ....'[The romance of remarriage] poses a structure in which we are permanently in doubt who the hero is, that is, whether it is the male or female who is the active partner, which of them is in quest, who is following whom.'

Cary grant & Katherine Hepburn "Above all, despite the sexual attractiveness of the actors in the movies he discusses, Cavell knows that sexuality is not the ultimate secret in these marriage: 'in God's intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage. Here is the reason that these relationships strike us as having the quality of friendship, a further factor in their exhilaration for us.'

"He is wise enough, moreover, to emphasize 'the mystery of marriage by finding that neither law nor sexuality (nor, by implication, progeny) is sufficient to ensure true marriage and suggesting that what provides legitimacy is the mutual willingness for remarriage, for a sort of continuous affirmation. Remarriage, hence marriage, is, whatever else it is, an intellectual undertaking.' "

Oh, how I love the idea that "a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage"!

Some years ago, I read an article about two people in the arts (alas, I can't remember who they were) who'd been married for many, many years. Asked for the secret of their long partnership, they said: "We fell straight into conversation when we met, and we haven't come to the end of that conversation yet."

I can't think of a better model for marriage than that. Or of a narrative more romantic . . . .

Our wedding rings


Oh, wonderful post, Terri! Marriage in fiction has always been one of my passions. I was the product of a good marriage albeit with its visible highs and lows and was determined to have one of my own one day and so collected stories, real and fictional, from an early age and probably for the rest of my life. Mysteries remain one of my favorite genres for I love the opportunity to watch a marriage grow and develop over the course of a series and have found that some authors do it better there than anywhere else in fiction. Yes, the romance is fun, but the marriage, that is where the real joy can be found and each and every one is such a unique endeavour unto itself. It's sad that most literature is about the formation or dissolution of a union instead of the ongoing process.

Heidi: Oooh, some recommendations for good marriage fiction please! Including mysteries.

Heilbrun herself (for those who don't know) was also a mystery writer, under the name Amanda Cross.

I suppose it's a hang-over from a time in the not too distant past, where the only thing of importance a young girl had to think about (or was allowed to think about) was the possibility of marriage, and whether it was ultimately happy or not was considered irrelevant. It's rather sad that we can't seem to make that leap beyond the first kiss/date/shag/night as a married couple, and see what comes after. I've always wanted to know what happened after the 'and they lived happily ever after' that inevitably followed close on the heels of the marriage at the end of so many fairytales.

As someone who has enjoyed a marriage of 17 years, and indeed, we've been together 25, I sometimes wonder what makes us different to so many of the people we know, who have been through break-ups, remarriages, the dating game in the middle years. Perhaps we just met so young that we don't have other previous relationships to be wistful about when things go a bit pear-shaped between us. We are so very different in so many ways I sometimes feel we speak entirely different languages. And yet we are best friends, even when we're fighting (which we do!), and there is always an awareness that whatever is going wrong is a phase we will pass through, we will work it out because it is worth it. And we've been through so much together, we know we'll get through.

Marriage is an odd and imperfect thing, especially I think for creative people, there is always a sense of compromise, you cannot follow the muse whenever you like when you are two, and I sometimes wonder who I might have been if I had not met my other half. Not because I think that I would be someone better (or with a better life), but because I would certainly be someone different because the people in our lives shape us (and we shape them) as surely as events do.

But (among many other talents) he still makes me laugh, even after 25 years, and that is a very important thing in a marriage!

Apologies for the novel! ;-)

I'm going to my bookshelves now in the quest for good marriage fiction. 'The Sea Captain's Wife' by Beth Powning is a novel I have read resently about the evolution of a marriage.

I have been married for 25 years and this quote from your post spoke to me, "for the intricate dance of a marriage or long-term partnership: the quieter romance of entwined lives spun out over years, over decades, over a lifetime".

Over all the years, through the trials and tribulations I think it is the support, humour and enless conversations we have that keep our marriage evolving.

Thought provoking post, thank you.

I was one of those little girls who already had my wedding planned out having bought into the faery tales that have been stripped away and sanitized by our culture. I couldn't care less about the vessel of marriage. Having witnessed parents (which you said we often have a lack of role models of marriage) who fought bitterly and divorced I tried to re-invent what I wanted my marriage to look like. I thought I would be different and change my rules. My own marriage ended after four years and I was devastated. It wasn't until I seriously entered therapy with a Jungian analyst and came to learn about the "sacred" marriage, coniunctio and started rethinking what a marriage could be both spiritually, emotionally, etc...

I began a conversation with myself (LOVE that quote) and I hope it never stops about what a sacred marriage is. I'm not married right now and am in a more "independent" state and I look forward to the day when I meet the one who I'll never fall out of conversation with.

Thank you for such a beautiful and thought-provoking post.

What an excellent and wise post, Terri. Thank you so much.

I'm not married yet (but will be soon!), and I've been thinking a lot about relationships, both mine and others'. It is interesting to see the different ideas people have about romance and the honeymoon period. And then, of course, there's reality to be dealt with. . .What makes some relationships work while others crash and burn? Is it a difference in expectations? A different level of commitment? An understanding of the need for compromise while retaining independent identity? More compatible partners and desires/dreams/aspirations? All of the above?

Anyway, thank you for another amazing post. ♥

Thank you for this, Terri.
I'm recently married and have been searching for a story of marriage that speaks to me. My family history has been almost purely a narrative of divorce (so I do know how to do that part right) and my mother and both grandmothers, all of whom have raised me in their way, were divorced around age 40 and never remarried. I grew up thinking that you temporarily got married, had children, and then you were alone. Marriage was never something that figured, somehow. I see them all as independent, powerful, beautiful women, hardly overtake by grief or loneliness. As such, I never really thought of divorce as a tragedy.

But as it always goes with growing older, their lives have been revealed to me as much more complicated. I understand that none of them desired divorce, but rather, they didn't let it ruin them. They found others ways of making themselves happy for which I will always admire them beyond measure.

Now I can finally identify with them in a more complete way, with the hope and fear of a newlywed; praying and working for a solid and fulfilling marriage but never forgetting that I can always take care of myself. I feel guilty somehow, like I'm "planning" for a divorce, which is so far from the truth. Rather, I'm making the decision to have a blessed life no matter what.

Thank you again for helping me articulate and think over this stuff.

I forgot to mention how much I love the idea of an unending conversation with your partner. Coming home and just talking to my husband fills me with a peace and joy I've never had before.

well and beautifully written. i, too, have read and reread heilbrun's work (this along with the kate fansler books are my favorites). she informed, and really saw what was happening in women's lives. i hate it that she is lost to us, so soon.

The quote about the long conversation hits me hard. I feel that my darling husband was taken from me in the middle of a fascinating sentence not completed. We were always in some passionate discussion or wildly funny moment and that was what gave us our grand 44 year marriage (46 together).

Some of my favorite marriages in fiction: Lord Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane surely. Nick and Nora (though a bit brittle for me), The Time Traveler's Wife. And parts of my own White Jenna. I think Harry Potter married the wrong young woman, settling for a quiet marriage rather than the challenging one Hermione would have had with him.


and the awful silence that envelops us when we realise the conversation finished some while ago
can be very sad indeed

Oh Jane, you and David were always an inspiration for me. It breaks my heart that your conversation ended too soon.

I agree with all your fiction recommendations, and with your Harry Potter comment too.

Great post,I can't think of any more to add.The long conversation is the really important thing!

Michael Ian Black on the depiction of marriage in Hollywood movies today: http://hollywonk.com/post/19243973685/michael-ian-black-on-movies-and-love

This is true. Our life's perspectives would change as we enter another life's chapter which is marriage. Our emotions and internalization may be different from being single to being married. Maybe this is because our experiences on this stage has changed so we see things differently.

I love articles about women.

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