Saturday, June 5, 2010

Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles - Katie Roiphe

I found this book a really interesting read, particularly in conjunction with Elizabeth Gilbert's recent book, Committed. Uncommon Arrangments is a series of essays about married British writers from 1910-1939. Each of the relationships is a study in the idea of marriage and committment, and questioning the traditional notions of monogamy and domestic/professional spheres. I am sure throughout history there have been couples who have consciously made an effort to redefine the idea of marriage -to make their relationships work despite the fact that they may be outside the normal mainstream. Yet, I was still struck that this somewhat concerted effort was going on so early in the 20th century - during a time when I just would have assumed that even if women were miserable, most were resigned to their role of domestic subservience. By nature of the couples that Roiphe chose to analyze however - these women for the most part had a talent and profession outside the home (as Virginia Woolf who features prominently on the periphery of several of the relationships in the book has said, "A woman needs money and a room of her own.") and were thus not wholly dependent on the men in their lives. Yet, they still chose to be married. Some of the women clearly love their husbands - despite the fact that their husbands are philanderers with children born out of wedlock or immature incompetents (sometimes both). Or, the women are lesbians (with gay husbands, at times), looking to perhaps to shield their preferred partnerships. Each relationship portrayed in this book is interesting in and of itself , though Roiphe approaches everything from the viewpoint of a disinterested researched which can become boring at times - but, more importantly, what I found the overall concept of the book truly fascinating. In some ways, it is people acting under the guise of liberal views of marriage - arguably in a way to justify their weaknesses. But, more to the point, I think there is value is exploring what it means to be happy in a marriage or partnership - why a given person enters into such an arrangement - and the importance of those two people making the rules that work for them, rather than feeling constrained by expectations imposed by society. There will always be questions about what people are actually comfortable with, and what they concede to in order to hold on to someone, or whether both people can be equally happy. But, I appreciate the idea that there is not a Platonic ideal when it comes to marriage and partnerships, but that we are all free to figure out and define what works for us as we grow and change in our given relationships.

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