Excerpted from Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe. Copyright © 2007 by Katie Roiphe. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
In Uncommon Arragements you write about seven unconventional Edwardian marriages and the crises that occurred in each of them. What brought you to this topic, and who was the first couple you researched?
I began thinking about this subject as my own marriage was falling apart. Unlike other probably healthier people, my response to personal calamity was to turn to my bookshelf. I started pouring over memoirs, and diaries and letters of writers and artists I admire to answer my consuming questions about relationships. I have been obsessed with H.G. Wells and Rebecca West for a long time, and Wells' perplexing marriage was the first one I began to research.
Although this is a book about marriages, it really focuses on the women in these particular relationships. Was this your intention from the beginning, or was that the way the book evolved?
That was definitely not my intention. I tried not to look at these couples in terms of victims and aggressors, which seems to me like the least interesting way to think about a marriage. I say at one point in the book that the when the men are monstrous, the women have a role in creating their particular monster, and I certainly believe this. But still, I admit, I often ended up being more sympathetic to the women.
For each of the marriages you examine, you choose a moment of crisis as a starting point. What did this approach afford you as a writer and researcher? What can we learn about these figures in terms of how they handled their problems?
One reason I was interested in that particular structure—a crisis in a marriage and how it is resolved or not resolved—is that exposes the drama so common in all marriages. I was interested in the question of how one spends a long life together, and how one endures ordinary and extraordinary unhappiness. And somehow this structure allowed me a glimpse into that subject. One learns a great deal about these characters from how they handle crisis: from Vanessa Bell's quietness & imagination in the face of difficulty, to John Middleton Murry's utter self absorption during his wife's illness, to Well's transcendent self-satisfaction through his complicated ménages, one sees these figures at their most creative, and most awful.
Who, would you say, was the most radical of the subjects you studied?
This is maybe an indirect answer to this question, but what interested me was how many of the most radical figures were actually quite in thrall to tradition: even figures like H.G. Wells, or Vanessa Bell who seemed quite bohemian and progressive had their own peculiar infatuations with traditional roles.
The relationships you examine were often turbulent and complicated and sometimes downright unhappy. Why do you think these partners chose to remain in their marriages?
For one thing divorce was still much more of a taboo than it is now. Also, I think one can't underestimate the enduring power of marriage, and the hold it continues to have on our imagination even after a relationship has deteriorated beyond repair. Divorce is an incredible act of violence, and not everyone is capable of it.
Which of the figures in the book is most interesting to you and why? Which of the couples best overcame their individual marital challenges and how?
Well, they are all interesting to me. I have spent so much time researching them that they are all a little bit alive to me. In a way it is like asking someone to choose between their own children. I love Rebecca West because she was brave, and tough, and brilliant. I love Katherine Mansfield because of her great imaginative feat in transforming John Middleton Murry into a romantic hero. I love Vanessa Bell because she managed to invent a completely original structure for her emotional life that in many ways worked. I suppose one could say that Ottoline & Philip Morrell, and Vera Brittain and George Catlin overcame their difficulties, and somehow endured as couples. Vanessa and Clive Bell managed to remain true friends even after their marriage dissolved, which is certainly heroic & unusual.
The stories in Uncommon Arragements reminded me of the relationships of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Satre. Are there other famous or infamous unconventional marriages or relationships that you think fit some of the patterns we find in your book?
There are quite a few, yes. One of the most obvious is Vita Sackville West and her husband, whose highly unusual and successful union is chronicled in their son's wonderful book, Portrait of a Marriage. There are many other couples I can think of who had uncommon arrangements: Graham Greene and his wife, Edith Wharton and her husband, Margaret Sanger and her husband. (Margaret Sanger, by the way, for sheer gossip, also had an affair with H.G. Wells, like many of the women I write about in the book....)
After all your research, do you think we learn anything about modern-day marriage from these couples?
Many of the issues these couples grappled with we still struggle with today. Take for instance what Radclyffe Hall called "the infinite sadness of fulfilled desire." How does one balance the need for settled life with the desire for freshness? How does one reconcile our comfort in traditions with our desire for equality? What is the difference between the story we tell ourselves about our relationships, and the way we actually experience them? All of these issues are still with us. One of the other things that struck me in the research of this book is how much happens in a marriage when you are not looking, how distances accumulate without one's realizing what is happening. This felt to me very true to life, and it was interesting to see it play out over decades in the marriages I was studying.
How does Uncommon Arragements fit in your other books and research, especially your writing about feminism?
Several people have recently suggested to me that all my books have somehow been in defense of what I call in this one "wild unsensible emotion." And in some sense I think this is true. I have always written about the ways in which we try to make order and subdue wilder emotions with rationality and politics. I have always written about the clash between our more conventional longings and our rogue desires. I have also been interested in the ways in which political language fails to speak to our most intimate experience of life. So they all fit together, my obsessions.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. In the book's introduction, the author raises a series of questions that shaped her approach. How would you respond to her central queries: Do some of these unusual arrangements work? Was all of this free thinking simply a highly articulated cover for consummate selfishness? Were some of these extraordinary arrangements admirable?
2. If you had been in Jane Wells's position, would you have stood by your husband despite his out-of-wedlock child and decade-long relationship with Rebecca West? Do you believe that fame and fortune were the factors that motivated Jane? What does the broad difference in temperament between Jane and Rebecca tell us about H. G. Wells himself?
3. How would you characterize the nature of Katherine Mansfield's romance with John Middleton Murry? How did she navigate the spectrum of fantasy and reality as her life unfolded?
4. Was there a common thread between the men in Elizabeth Von Arnim's life? How did H. G. Wells compare to her husbands? What role did brother-in-law Bertrand Russell play in guiding Elizabeth through her marriage?
5. What aspects of love are illustrated by Vanessa Bell's inclusion of Duncan Grant in her marriage to Clive Bell? What is the effect of transforming a partnership into a triangular dynamic? To what extent did Virginia Woolf attempt to, or succeed in, "participating" in her sister's marriage?
6. The author tells us that Philip Morrell may have been the inspiration for Katherine Mansfield's story, "Marriage à la Mode," featuring "a sweet, plodding man mocked and exploited by his wife's interesting and artistic weekend guests." In what ways was this theme reflected in other marriages described in the book? To what extent does the concept of being fashionable shape the way contemporary artists conduct their relationships?
7. In what way did passionate living both sustain and threaten the Morrells' marriage? What caused Ottoline to spark so much attraction in men? What made Bertrand Russell's involvement different from the others she encountered?
8. In emulating traits of English gentlemen, how did Radclyffe Hall approach the concept of power in her relationships? How might her writing have flourished further—or suffered—had she lived in tolerant contemporary England?
9. What might have motivated Hall to leave Evguenia's income entirely in Una's hands? How did affluence enhance the ability of Hall, along with other luminaries featured in the book, in crafting their unconventional personal lives?
10. The author tells us that Vera Brittain, like many other women whose beloved had died in the Great War, felt compelled to find an injured soldier to nurse. In what way does this experience help us understand the mindset of British society in general as it reacted to the casualties of war? Does it explain her "semidetached" marriage to George Gordon Catlin, or her tremendous attachment to Winifred Holtby?
11. Many of the figures mentioned in the book, including Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, were Jane Austen aficionados. What parallels and complete opposites exist between Jane Austen's novels and the members of these circles? How might Jane Austen's characters have responded to the uncommon arrangements described in this book?
12. What patterns and personalities occurred multiple times throughout Uncommon Arrangements? What seem to be the makings of the loyal partner versus the Other Man or Other Woman? What are the makings of the "interloper" who is comfortable joining an existing household?
13. Discuss the aspects of child-rearing presented in the book. From the point of view of the children mentioned, were uncommon arrangements beneficial? What accounts for the varying attitudes toward offspring, ranging from H. G. Wells's dislike of children to Philip Morrell's elation at becoming a father?
14. In her closing paragraph, the author quotes T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land": "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." In addition to letters, what fragments were left behind by the figures in this book? What is unique about the artifacts created by journalists, painters, and fiction writers? How did they seem to address the fact that future generations might wish to examine their "ruins"?
15. Which works produced by this circle were you familiar with? How did reading Uncommon Arrangements shape your understanding of these works?
16. In interviews the author has said that she finds it interesting that some of these couples decided to marry in the first place, but then later decided not to get divorced. What does this say about the power of the institution of marriage?
17. How do you feel these marriages are the same or different from conventional marriages?