33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Life imitating art
, March 15, 2008
This review is from: Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939 (Hardcover)
If you've ever believed that modern relationships are more complex and unorthodox than those of the past, this magnificent book will quickly open your eyes to the truth. Katie Roiphe picks apart the tangled strands of seven couples' lives, looking for "the distilled wisdom of decades lived, of mistakes made, of love stirred by time." (p. 2) What did Katie learn?
The subjects of this book spent their childhood in the repressed Victorian age. Like some who grew up in the 1950s and 60s and came to early adulthood in the Age of Aquarius, the figures in Roiphe's book lived in a new age allowing them more freedom to defy convention -- and defy they did.
After a wonderfully expository opening chapter called "Marriage A La Mode," Roiphe devotes a chapter to each of her subjects. First we meet H. G. Wells and his wife Jane, whom he treated according to a Victorian ideal of fragile womanhood while carrying on a ten-year affair with Rebecca West, a thoroughly modern young writer.
Roiphe explores the marriage of Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry. Their love was, by their own admission, a "child-love" that was only passionate when they were apart. Elizabeth von Arnim and Frank Russell relied on "conflict and sparring as a prelude to reconciliation." Vanessa and Clive Bell lived in an ever-shifting menage that included her former lover, and her current lover along with his (male) lover. Ottoline Morrell, who may have inspired the character of Lady Chatterley, was outraged when her husband Philip confessed that he had two pregnant mistresses. Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall had been a committed lesbian couple for eighteen years when Radclyffe (known to all as "John") fell in love with a Russian emigree and established what French gossip columns called a "trio lesbienne." Vera Brittain and Gordon Catlin and their children shared their homes with Vera's lifelong friend, Winifred Holtby.
The lives of these people were interwoven with family, social or sexual relationships; they were observers of and commentors on each others' dramas. The author has distilled a huge amount of primary material into this fascinating book, with no judgment or editorializing. Her notes are a treasure trove for any reader who wants to explore a wider context.
Roiphe's postscript takes the position that, however self-absorbed, the subjects of this book at least showed creativity and imagination in imposing their own mythologies on the drabness of daily life. She writes (p. 302), "This is storytelling in its most challenging medium: life itself."
Linda Bulger, 2008
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