Katie Roiphe's Uncommon Arrangements.

Notes on nuptials.
June 12 2007 12:01 PM

Marital Upstarts

Sobering lessons from revolutionary marriages.

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An obvious inspiration behind Uncommon Arrangements, warmly acknowledged, is Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives of 1983, a study of five Victorian marriages, among them the unions between Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. Rose's book was urged forward on a feminist inspiration: to look at the struggle against Victorian patriarchy in close detail and to see how men and especially women negotiated, parried, refused, surrendered, or resisted, as part of a long historical effort to make marriage a reciprocity. At the close of Parallel Lives, Rose named her heroines, above all Jane Welsh, who "went down fighting, demanding equal time, and writing about it all in marvelous prose which just might outlast her husband's."

Roiphe has no heroines, or heroes. Her generation of Moderns repudiated the concession and compromise of Rose's Victorians. Then they paid for their bolt to freedom. Something old and intractable came curdling back. And it's not only that the Moderns broke with the Victorians but also that Roiphe breaks with Rose without acknowledging it—breaks, that is, with a feminist generation that called on women to struggle against their sexual victimization within marriage. Roiphe's men and women are equally responsible for the circuit of rogue emotions; they are co-manufacturers of the desires that make a mockery of beliefs. No feminist affirmation guides these pages, only a pre-ethical respect for the ferocity of individuals in pursuing what they need.

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In her first book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus (1993), Roiphe became famous/notorious for resisting claims of women's victimhood, for poking academic feminism in the eye, and for calling on women to acknowledge power in their sexuality. While it's true that the media used her as a prop, she was no victim either; she made that bed. Then she remade it. Her novel Still She Haunts Me (2001) was a fictional reimagining of Lewis Carroll's (that is, Charles Dodgson's) hopeless infatuation for Alice Liddell, a passion that Roiphe reads as begetting Alice in Wonderland just to the extent that it ravaged Dodgson. The dare of the novel is the way it sympathetically imagined something that looks like pedophilia. Even as young Alice discovers the surprise of her body, Dodgson is baffled by his desires, frightened of them, but also fascinated and inspired by them.

Now in Uncommon Arrangements she turns to the lives of articulate women and men, who lived (and documented) the hope and doom of love. The polemic of the early career is gone, replaced by curiosity, fascination, absorption. In a preface as interesting as any of the rich chapters, Roiphe disarmingly admits that her interests are "largely selfish": she wants to extract practical advice from the stories and, despite what she was taught in graduate school, to read for personal understanding. And yet by the end of the book, no lessons have been taught, no consolation offered to the "bewilderment" of our own moment. The only sure positive value is the work of imagination to redeem life's dullness and the will to record emotion—to write it—even among the ruins.

Why, though, should anyone be surprised that disasters occur, or that ambitious and hopeful marriages fail? The surprise is that they carry on, tack to windward, sail after swamping. Only one of these partnerships suffered a sharp break (von Arnim and Russell), but though the others survive, they disappear from Roiphe's pages in varying phases of estrangement—distance, inscrutability, unspoken regret, unvoiced love—together but semi-detached. But how different does that make them? The least plausible sentence in the book is this one (concerning Elizabeth von Arnim and her husband, Lord John Russell): "She was either rapturously happy with Russell or completely wretched: there was little of that pleasant, nondescript stability that constitutes the bulk of human relationships." Sorry, but that's not a bulk I happen to know. Every marriage is operatic. None is nondescript, none a stroll in the park. All are startling even in their continuities, and tense even in shared expectations. In its best moments, Uncommon Arrangements sees just this, sees that its theatrical marriages—its rapturous/wretched few—are not seven rare specimens after all, and are only special in the need to memorialize every glory, each failure. All marriages are uncommon arrangements.

Michael Levenson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.

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