There are plenty of famous couples, and people seem to be fascinated with reading about their personal lives. Katie Roiphe's latest work of nonfiction, UNCOMMON ARRANGEMENTS, takes the celebrity couple story, turns it on its head and gives it a decidedly literary treatment.
Roiphe's work examines seven literary London couples between 1910 and 1939.
It was a time of great social change in a city upended by one world war and tense with the coming of another. Women especially were challenging Victorian mores and experimenting with new ways of engaging in relationships. The couples in this book were all in what Roiphe labels “progressive” marriages; they were often open to affairs or more generally concerned with “questions of freedom and attraction.” And, as these couples were all more or less creative to begin with, she writes that “they felt their love affairs and marriages were themselves creative acts.”
Roiphe goes one step further than just sharing with readers these “uncommon arrangements.” She starts each discussion at a moment of crisis in the relationship and uses that moment to begin to examine the relationship itself: its dynamics, history, and how it met --- or did not meet --- the needs of each person. Luckily for the author, and for us, all of these people left behind correspondence, memoirs, journals and inspired biographies; there is a lot of material to examine and use to create a fairly clear picture of each marriage. In the end, though, these relationships, like all relationships, are mysterious. What really motivated each person is nearly impossible to tell. But Roiphe's book makes the speculation fun and interesting.
Perhaps the most compelling couple (and the most successful chapter) is Katherine Mansfield and her husband John Middleton Murry. First we see their somber portrait, a photograph of the young, serious couple, and then we read the account of their even more somber wedding day. Roiphe draws us in from the start. Mansfield was an eccentric, and Murry was immediately attracted to her figure and personality. She was already known as a short story writer, and he was a student at Oxford. They moved dozens of times in the first years of their marriage, often followed by Katherine's closest friend Ida Baker. For love and sex she often turned to other men (including Bertrand Russell). While Mansfield and Murry never divorced, they were often apart, lonely in their marriage to each other but unwilling to give up the romantic notion of themselves. “Her idea of him,” writes Roiphe, “as in many marriages, was more powerful, more fiercely potent than any mere reality.” This is a strong theme throughout UNCOMMON ARRANGEMENTS: the ideals of marriage for these bright and creative people rarely held up against the realities.
The literary circle that makes up the couples examined was rather small and incestuous; we often read about one person from the viewpoints of several relationships. Virginia Woolf, the sister of Vanessa Bell and the subject of one chapter, makes many appearances in the book, adding her opinions of various characters and unions. We may not learn much about early-20th century London in general from this book, but we learn volumes about a particular early-20th century London.
Some of the couples spotlighted were simply mismatched, or perhaps they grew apart over time. Others were damaged by affairs or emotional cruelty. None were traditional in their marriages, even if deep down they longed to be. Radclyffe Hall, another subject of the book, talked about the “infinite sadness of fulfilled desire,” and that deceptively simple statement describes so many of the marriages Roiphe examines.
This is, without a doubt, a good book. But still it is fair to ask, Why read it? UNCOMMON ARRANGEMENTS is not a self-help manual, or one that discusses the clinical psychology of marriage. Roiphe herself admits that her interest “in these lives is not purely the interest of a scholar.” She says that her interest is selfish; she wants to know what these marriages can teach us. She writes that she is after the “distilled wisdom of decades lived, of mistakes made, of love stirred by time.” And while a cynic could dismiss this book as a fancy, intellectual version of celebrity gossip and voyeurism, Roiphe goes far beyond that to bring to the subject --- in addition to an honest curiosity about these unusual and often brilliant figures and their even more unusual relationships --- a dignity and respect for their lives and loves, and ultimately, for the institution of marriage itself.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 24, 2011