Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles, 1910-1939 by Katie Roiphe
It goes without saying that many of our grandparents', and even our parents' ideas about what makes for a happy marriage seem less than desirable to us today. Even among members of our own generation, arrangements like stay-at-home fathers or mothers, same-sex parenting, and open marriages don't hold anything that resembles a consensus. And while the Mommy Wars and the furor over gay marriage have made intimate relationships a public issue, the subtle give and take that shapes relationships occurs, to a certain degree, on a case by case basis.
Roiphe's highly readable accounts of seven marriages show how very unconventional people made a go of a very traditional institution, and in their own way, tried to make it work for them. Each section begins with a moment of conflict that threatens the union in some way, then goes on to describe how the couple resolved (or failed to resolve) it.
Some of the marriages seem not so uncommon as just plain miserable. H.G. Wells and his wife, Jane, had an agreement that allowed him to pursue extramarital affairs as he wished and frequently to live apart from her, provided that he never left her altogether. Similarly, when a young nurse threatens the 18-year relationship of Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge, Una chooses to integrate the woman into their relationship rather than risk losing Hall to her for good.
Other unions stretch the imagination a bit more, like the unlikely household of painter Vanessa Bell, her husband Clive, her lover, Duncan Grant, and occasionally, his bisexual lover, Bunny. In a creepy twist, Bell's daughter with Duncan would later marry Bunny without knowing the truth about her parentage. A strange paradox exists in many of the relationships, couples who are uninhibited about sex, while remaining somehow naive and frightened of discussing it too much.
While the marriages Roiphe explores aren't enviable, they're certainly captivating. This is, in part, due to the fact that many of the couples and their lovers were friends or distant relatives, or at least had their books reviewed in the same papers. It's such an incestuous little circle, one marvels that the children weren't all born with tails.
And despite the sometimes gloomy tales of love gone bad, Roiphe is an engaging and very funny writer. When describing Katherine Mansfield's husband, the odious John Middleton Murry, Roiphe writes that he was the kind of "artistically inclined man who milks the idea of being 'promising' well into his forties," and goes on to say, "In order to avoid conscription, Murry found... a demanding job in the War Office (though one should note that Murry found all of his jobs demanding, and constantly complained of being dangerously overworked)."
If you liked...: Lives of the Muses by Francine Prose, this book is for you.