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Tunes for a Monday Morning

The narrative of marriage

 The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

Re-posted from 2011, with much more art this time around:

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 many years in a more independent state, and thus have fresh interest in Heilbrun's reflections on marriage and its portrayal in women's stories.*

Titania Meets Over Arthur Rackham

Heilbrun writes:

"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 lst 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."

The Beautiful Couple by Helen StrattonOne 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 a working marriage, the challenging art 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.**

Heilbrun laments how such limited representations of love tend to serve us false, inculcating dreams of a "perfect marriage" with little discussion of the skills needed to create lasting relationships:

"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.

Titania Reaching for Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

"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."

Edmund Dulac

Later in the text 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.  Cavell writes 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 in The Philadelphia Story

"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"!

 The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

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

* Heilbrun's reflections on marriage pertain to men too, of course; and are useful for looking at same-sex marriages as well. Please keep in mind that she was writing 30 years ago, when focusing a scholarly gaze on women's biographies in this manner was still something of a radical act.

** There are exceptions to this, of course, with some examples listed in "The Top Ten Books About Marriage" by Jane Rogers, exploring long marriages good and bad (The Guardian, August 2016). What books would you recommend?

The text quoted above is from Carolyn G. Heilbrun's Writing a Woman's Life (Ballentine Books, 1988); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The illustrations are by Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, and Helen Stratton; they are identified in the picture captions. The photograph is from my own marriage; the wedding rings were made by our friend Miriam Boy Hackney. Her jewelry business is called Silverandmoor, which inspired the title of this blog.

Comments

Even Death

"We fell straight into conversation
when we met, and we haven't come to
the end of that conversation yet."--
as quoted by Terri Windling


Even death's bone hand
over your mouth
has not stopped that converse.


Even the years without you
have not limited
what we say to one another.


Even the nights alone
have not put full stop
to the sentences.

Even a bird in its ellipses,
unseen by your field glasses,
remains in our exchanges.


Even my death will not cut off
the love that lingered
in our mouths.


©2016 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Devastating and exquisitely beautiful, Jane.

It's our wedding anniversary today, and thinking about you and David provides a wonderful example of just how deep such relationships can go....

Happy Anniversary, Terri and Howard. I love the photograph of your hands and roses, being particularly in love with what the hands say about partnerships.

Thank you for this post, Terry! And the poem, Jane Yolen.

How beautiful this post is Terri! A very happy anniversary to you and Howard today!
Thank you Jane Yolan for sharing such a fragile poem with us this morning. My heart was touched feeling your loss and brought tears to my eyes. Memories are precious. Keep holding him close. Love never dies.

Thank you.

What lovely sentiments Terri. Couldn't agree more. It so happens that today is also my & my husband's anniversary of 10 wedded years. Hope your day is special and we both have many more! And what a gift your poem is, Jane, what profound love you possess.

Happy anniversary! Thank you for a beautiful and thoughtful post, Terri, and thanks to Jane Yolen for her exquisite poem. My father died earlier this year, so of course I will be sharing it with my mother.

As her full time carer, I recently asked my Dad if he would like some respite care to help with my mum (short term memory loss and diabetes). His reply was simple, heartfelt and beautiful.
"We don't have much longer and I want to spend every minute with my wife."

I have been so lucky, their marriage has been long and happy; even now they can still giggle together despite the care Mum needs. Their story started on their wedding day and it is the conversation that threads through that story that glued them together.

"Gift from the Sea" by Anne Morrow-Lindburgh is probably my all-time favourite book on relationships (although Marcia and I did go through "Getting the Love You Want" by Harville Hendrix and Helent Hunt at one point). In each chapter Anne compares the stages of a relationship to the different shells she finds on the beach.

In a very short time (less than two months), Marcia and I will celebrate our 264th Monthaversary (22 years) of being a couple, and while our love has strengthened and deepened over the years it is no less romantic now than it ever was. Someone asked me a while back how we keep our relationship going, and I replied, "We feed it every day." Every day we're apart we write love notes to each other, and combined we've written our love on over 14000 slips of paper. That's only one example... :-)

Love and hugs,
M&M

And congrats to you two as well, Terri! Well deserved...

As soon as I saw this narrative of marriage, I was waiting for your poem. By now in Myth and Moor we have learned the reality of so many who are part of it. I often feel tears and sighs, for such a marriage. All of my aunts and uncles were love stories. They were brave and lovely, and I felt a warmth that came around them, into my joy of sometimes living with them, when I was a child, and how each had differences of opinion or work, but it was like peeking at the halo of love. So I knew I would love this poem, too.

beautiful honouring

Honored.

Thanks all.

Jane

"The best friend will probably acquire the best wife, because a good marriage is founded on the talent for friendship."
&
"When marrying, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that you will be able to converse well with this person into your old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory."

- Friederich Nietzsche, of all people!

And he's right,too.

I met my husband when I was 19. This year I am 50. Almost 31 years together, 22 years married. We are vastly different people, yet he is my best friend. Every texted shopping list between us still ends in kisses. He still makes me laugh like an idiot, often with the same old jokes. This morning I was on the phone to my mum. My dad had a health scare yesterday and though it seems all is ok now, I could hear the worry in her voice. He is 81 and they have been married 53 years. They still hold hands.

Yesterday, I was talking to another woman about my girls, and she asked,"so is their dad still around?" It seemed like an odd thing to say, but I suppose it's possible marriages like mine and my parents' have become the uncommon story these days.

Happy anniversary to you and Howard, Terri. And my thoughts are with you Jane, your poem had me in tears.

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