Way back in the 1990s, Writing a Woman's Life by the late feminist scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun (1926-2003) was enormously influential for me as a young woman making my way in the arts. 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 how women's stories are told today...and the manner in which such narratives influence the ways that we tell our own stories.
I've re-read Heilbrun's book several times since then, finding new things to ponder within it at each different stage of my own life's journey. In my most recent reading, I found myself struck by Heilbrun's chapter on marriage -- for I'm now 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.*
"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."
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.) 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.
"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."
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.'
"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 . . . .
* 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.