Friday, February 1, 2008

The Infinite Sadness of Fulfilled Desire

Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939 (2007) by Katie Roiphe (344 pp.)

The naivete of this newest book by Katie Roiphe painfully reminds me of a sad, and slightly humorous, episode from my largely unsuccessful period of dating while at university (pre R - that is my husband), a place where you try out new theories of living, of life, mostly resulting in embarrassing and/or humiliating scenarios.

When I was a young hedonist and had more freedom than brains (now that's slightly reversed but only slightly) I would loudly assert to all and sundry that we men and women required more flexibility in our personal relationships, that we should have multiple partners if we so chose, of whatever gender suited us at the time, inside or outside of marriage. That I did not live that way, nor could I emotionally sustain that sort of artificial construction was immaterial. It seemed an ideal to strive for and pontificate about.

As you might imagine I held this view for a short time, approximately the length of one brief somewhat platonic relationship. B, was a fair bit older, very funny and attentive, generous hearted and seemed more interested in me than I was in him. He would pass by my part-time workplace and chat with me; we would have coffee and hang out, that was about it. He was one of the first people I had shared my theory with, in a sort of sophomoric, isn't-that-a-great- idea?, bright eyed, bushy tailed sort of way which must have been extremely amusing at the time.

We were not boyfriend/girlfriend but he wanted this to be the case, I think, and invited me to his sister's wedding as his date. She was a TV reporter with one of the major networks here in Toronto. I didn't have suitable clothes for such a formal affair and B offered to buy me an outfit (and he did so very kindly).

From my young and probably slightly mercenary perspective, I did not have a problem accepting this gift which cost more than I would spend even today on an outfit, considering I didn't have any real, substantial relationship with this person. I guess he was waiting for a return on his investment which I, ultimately, had no intention of delivering to him (annually, quarterly or otherwise).

B's sister's wedding was rather elegant with a lovely reception at the Great Hall at the St. Lawrence. Young waiters, a little older than I was at the time, served cocktails, champagne and tasteful hor' oeuvres. Very sophisticated, I thought, for a little girl from Hamilton who had only been in Toronto for two years or so. It was utterly different than any wedding I had been to (hey lady where's the proscuitt' and melon appetizer?). I had a great time at the wedding, mingling comfortably, I thought, considering I was only about 20 at the time, and with a much older crowd.

After the reception, a smaller group suggested we move to a cozy new restaurant on Avenue Rd. north of Bloor St. for a light dinner (the name eludes me now). It felt very chic to me. I was, as they say, fighting out of my weight class with this crowd but it was fun and the company was very friendly. I didn't feel self-conscious in their midst. An "older" woman (she was likely only thirty at the time but seemed very much older to me) took a liking to me and was engaging me in conversation for a good portion of the night.

B didn't seem to appreciate my conviviality because he kept signaling for more drinks and slowly got drunker and drunker as the night progressed, which then evolved into an icy, silent fury which was incomprehensible to me. I had appreciated his invitation and thought all was going well.

He finally exploded during the latter part of the dinner about my (mis)perceived friendliness. The gist of it was that he could see that this other female guest I had been talking to liked me. It was obvious and that I liked her too so why didn't I just go off with her and blankety blank blank because that's what I really want to do ... I could only quietly deny it because it wasn't true. Just because I wasn't sleeping with him didn't mean I wanted to sleep with her. I wasn't inclined that way and I didn't really think she was either.

He was so loud and so vicious that he reduced me to a quiet, bewildered crying in the middle of the dinner in front of the other guests at the table. Then he stormily, and abruptly, left me sitting there at the table, stranded without a car or a convenient means of getting home, and a fair distance from home to boot. One of the male guests, all of whom were completely mortified but equally silent perhaps because B was the bride's brother, took pity on me and drove me home and tactfully never spoke of it on the drive home despite my teary countenance.

Sometime after this, I was relating this story to an older, wiser female friend and I was horrified when she started berating me. She said I was a fool for expounding on such a theory and then doubly foolish for saying it out loud to a man who obviously took it as some kind of cue as to how I wanted to live, a sort of design for living. She basically told me that I was an idiot and to stop talking such nonsense out loud.

Point taken, and though I never gave B the tongue lashing he deserved for that incident when I next saw him (he continued to cheerfully haunt my workplace and never referred to that incident again as if it had never happened), I never went out with him again nor expounded on my theory out loud to anyone which as you can imagine I have since thankfully abandoned.

Okay, here's my long-winded point about this book:

Katie, you're an fool, stop talking such nonsense out loud. In her introduction it seems clear that Ms. Roiphe is searching for a sort of ideal about relationships and marriage among the literati of Edwardian England. They may have been literary geniuses or politically progressive and represented the cream of the cultural and intellectual elite in Britain at the time but that doesn't mean they had any better idea than the average bear about how to live and love and how to harness their sexual energies. Roiphe seems in search of an ideal paradigm amongst people that perhaps she feels she most resembles: literate, educated, sophisticated in their ideas.

I can't agree with Tina Brown's assessment in her New York Times review: "The way the alpha women of Bloomsbury wrestled with their need for love while producing work of the highest quality should be an inspiration to a modern generation of women who, we keep being told, are more and more inclined to give up the struggle and abandon their aspirations." More clearsightedly she notes that "Often these unorthodox unions endured only because someone was willing to knuckle under. "

And, like me on that awful night with B, when you engage in these experiments, someone always ends up crying at the dinner table ...

Sure enough, just as I was finishing this section of the blog I started poking around into what Katie was up to. According to that virulent website, which I admit I peruse occasionally, and which follows the doings of the glitterati, it seems that Roiphe is recently divorced; hence, all this hand wringing in the introduction of the book, this wondering about viable marriages. You can almost read her mind: how do interesting people like me do it? How do they survive marriage? infidelity? How do they live together? Share responsibilities for children? Apparently, very badly Katie dear, very badly.

She talks about the tensions between the "exquisite restraint" of the Victorians which is at odds with the new hedonism of the Edwardians' modern age with regards to love and sex. Katie, do your research ... Discuss: The Victorians were neither restrained nor exquisite. Many affluent men in high society had two families, one legitimate, one "illegitimate" which they sustained equally and kept apart. In the early and mid 19th c. in London, I have read that possibly 1 in 3 women were prostitutes. The Victorians were merely exceptionally hypocritical about concealing their "errant" desires.

My first impulse is to say the book is bad, it's not. It's mostly well written and extremely entertaining. But I think that the premise, the original intention of the book, is flawed and a little childish. While I love the gossip and history about these seven literary types and their assorted sexual menageries I find her innocence touching, if not irritating, in researching this group of people "searching for a new etiquette" for extramarital affairs and relationships as she says.

When you delve into the history of these notable figures (H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, Katherine Mansfield, Vanessa Bell, Ottoline Morrell, Radclyffe Hall, among others) is it so hard to prophesy that, for example, the married, successful H.G. Wells, serial philanderer and sometimes science fiction writer, taking up with a 19 year old firebrand Rebecca West will end in tears? And with the ill prepared and embittered Rebecca raising (badly it would seem) a neglected son, the writer Anthony West, on her own?

Wells never changed his ways but flitted from one young girl to the next. Oh yes and he also impregnated and abandoned the well known Fabian Amber Reeves and shtupped a whole lot of women as wife Jane Wells, whom he described as an angel, a paragon of virtue, silently looked on until her death. Their agreement was that he could do as he pleased but with full disclosure. Oh lucky Jane ...

And what of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield slowly dying of tuberculosis in various exotic if impoverished locations trying to write while her husband, the less talented writer John Middleton Murry, traverses the globe seeking literary fame and fortune and floating like a bee from one exquisite female flower to the next? In her letters and private papers Mansfield fluctuates between a burning bitterness and an explicit avowal that he can do as he pleases because she doesn't want to inhibit him. Mansfield is sometimes consoled by lover/nursemaid/ doormat Ida who always gets the boot into the spare room whenever Murry pops back into her life.

The writer Elizabeth Von Armin, who some might argue was a sort of Martha Stewart of the Edwardian era and coincidentally was a first cousin of Katherine Mansfield, struggles to free herself from a tyrannical second husband, Earl Frank Russell (older brother of Bertrand Russell), once charged with bigamy.

Russell has a violent temper, is abusive and incapable of fidelity. She must literally run away from his home on Telegraph Hill to escape him and his conniving, destructive ways. Elizabeth turns the other cheek when witnessing his infidelities but when he has an affair with two secretaries (one in his family home and one at his office) simultaneously she draws the line. and beats a hasty retreat after years of subjugation.

The life of Von Armin, a best selling author of tomes detailing domestic bliss, the care of beautiful gardens, menageries of much loved dogs, single women caravaning in the U.K. creating a craze of sorts for this adventure amongst English women, much younger men who fell in love with widows, is in sharp contrast to the brutality of her life with Russell.

Next up: Clive loves Vanessa, then covets Virginia (in a pristine sort of way); Vanessa loves Duncan; Duncan loves David better known as Bunny (repeatedly); Bunny seduces then marries Angelica, love child of Vanessa and Duncan in the spare bedroom of that scallawag H.G. Wells no less. P.S. Angelica has no idea that Bunny has slept with her father when she marries. If you don't know who these people are, read the chapter on the Bloomsbury love triangle between painter Vanessa Bell, art critic Clive Bell and artist Duncan Grant (immediately please).

Ottoline Morrell led many literary salons at her home Garsington Manor which included the usual Bloomsbury suspects and many other artists, politicians and celebrities of the day. She was alternately adored and mocked for her eccentric, remarkable demenour (see previous blog Maybe we should be afraid of Virginia Woolf).

Despite her own ongoing affair with philosopher Bertrand Russell, Ottoline was shocked to learn that husband Philip Morrell had impregnated one of the maids and his own secretary (what's with this two at a time thing? - see Earl Russell above). Philip begged Ottoline to preserve his privacy as it would undermine his work in parliament as a pacifist during WWI. Ottoline quietly complied and supported an increasingly fragile Philip who seemed unhinged by the events.

But her own extra-marital affairs, even though the married couple remained together, persisted most notably with a much young gardener named Lionel. Their love affair was possibly the inspiration for Lady Chatterley's Lover. D.H. Lawrence was also one of Ottoline's admirers/ detractors. It is to Ottoline's credit that those who loved her, remained her friend for years to come. But still there was this yearning for a closeness with her husband that she never achieved although they never separated.

But lest you think that all the men cited here are selfish beasts with raging libidos, Roiphe offers up to us the inimitable Radclyffe Hall who treated her long time companion Una Troubridge and her sometime "plaything" Evguenia Souline as badly as any man could have, controlling Evguenia with money, favours and her sheer rage and possessiveness. But although forced to co-habit with Evguenia and share Radclyffe's love and life, Una, as the wronged "wife" has the last laugh. Evguenia is written out of Radclyffe's will and must beg for a pitiful allowance to live even as she dies of cancer despite (or becasue of) the nine years of passion Radclyffe felt for her.

It is eloquent, wicked Radclyffe who spoke of the "infinite sadness of fulfilled desire" in her famous book The Well of Loneliness. She spoke possibly of Una who had become more a wife than a lover much to Radclyffe's chagrin.

The book ends with the triangle of Vera Brittain, her friend Winifred Holtby and Vera's husband George Gordon Catlin. It's an odd configuration as Vera lives at times with Winifred, platonically, and then Gordon. Winifred is the chaste handmaiden to Vera's successes as an author most notably as the author of Testament of Youth, her WWI memoir. Although a successful writer in her own right, Winifred devotes herself to Vera, caring for her children, filling in domestically, serving as her chief confidante until she dies prematurely of a kidney ailment at 37. In a way, she became the wife without the sexual obligations. Throughout her life Vera mourns two great loves; that of Roland Leighton, her solider/fiance killed in WWI and then the loss of Winifred's friendship.

Gordon expressed only bitterness about the arrangment although he often used the opportunity to avail himself of the charms of other women. The children seemed displeased with the scenario as well. It seemed to suit only Vera and not even Winifred who never fully established intimacy with another apart from Vera.

Roiphe's writings always reminds me of that other media-genic lightweight with a Ph.D. Naomi Wolf, Whatever pops into Naomi's pretty head becomes the burning issue of the day for her. Obsessed with your looks Naomi? Hey, let's write a book about The Beauty Myth using dodgy research and massive generalizations.

Angry about the way people treat you and your child as a new mother? Write a book called Misconceptions in which she describes "how hormones eroded her sense of independence, ultrasounds tested her commitment to abortion rights ..." I remember an interview when Misconceptions was released where Wolf was practically weeping with rage because there were no diaper tables in a public space she frequented with her child. Oh, the outrage. Listen sister, I have been in that uncomfortable scenario; it ain't pretty but if that is one of your biggest worries as a mother ...

What we sometimes forget as feminists, nay as sentient beings with a supposed interest in the outside world and important issues, is that the most pressing issues of the day are not necessarily your own personal issues. Some might argue a blog of this type would fit into that category, into that schemata of self-absorption. But my philosophy is write what you like but have a sense of perspective about the relevance of your personal experiences and views in a wider world.

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