As I do believe I mentioned last week my first foray into reading on the Kindle was spent in the company of one Miss May Edginton, the author of Married Life: The True Romance and truth sayer of what it is to be a wife and mother, then and I hasten to add, now.
Published in1920. Married Life begins in gushing fashion: Marie and Osborn are on the eve of a wedding they believe to be their destiny. Never was there a love like theirs before. Never will Marie succumb to drudgery- her hands will remain lily white, they will only ever revel in each other’s company and everything they touch will turn to gold because life will bend to the will of this great love.
You know, of course, where this is going.
Before too long Marie is exhausted by the relentless rigour of keeping house. Osborn is bored by a wife jaded by the same and when their first child comes along and seemingly rips out the soul of their marriage, so violent is the birth, so shocking the financial and emotional impact of having a child, all too quickly the gilded gloss of their relationship evaporates and they start to see marriage for what life would have it be: a war between two people fighting for the same cause.
It is a sorry state of affairs, and no less sorry for it’s time. In every one of the themes raised: the alienation of the new Mother; a mans relative freedom within marriage compared to that of his wife; anger that dissipitates into indifference (ah the dreaded indifference) – in every one of these themes I felt a jarring, ugly sense of recognition. Not just because my own relationship collapsed so dramatically, but because when women are absolutely honest with each other (as they so very rarely are) they too, will own up to similar feelings, feelings that do not bear acknowledgement because the alternatives they raise are unthinkable.
Three children down the line, Marie is offered salvation in the form of a years unexpected freedom from her husband: a year in which he succumbs to inevitable, predictable temptation and she suddenly finds herself liberated by both finance and the space to grow into the woman she always intended to be.
What happens after that I cannot say without giving too much of the story away, when I would really rather you read it too and acknowledged the issues that it raises. Relationships are horribly difficult, and made none the less so, by our own insistence on internalising our disappointment and soldiering on regardless. Only last week a woman I know sobbed all over me as she declared “I hate him. I do. I hate him. And I pretend that I don’t but I bloody hate him“. And I listened as she sobbed and I listened to far too much proof that love had died a long time ago. And I went home and worried about her and the very next day, she denied every word. Every single word. And on and on it goes. Not only in my circle but in yours: women who lie to the whole world and come undone at the drop of a hat. Women who fight for things that aren’t worth fighting for and risk very real friendship for the sake of the kind of ludicrous loyalty marriage inspires and so frequently misplaces. Woman smiling on the outside and seething or falling apart inside.
Perhaps, to you, this represents my betrayal of the sisterhood. Perhaps neither me, nor Marie in “Married Life” understood the rules: perhaps it simply isn’t in us to pretend, or when it is, perhaps it is our bodies that betray us, so that the depression, grey skin and everyday exhaustion tell their own story. I see it daily now. I listen to tales of women having affairs. See others desperately trying to stand up for men who are betraying them at every turn. Men who smirk and declare they cannot help themselves. Women who imbibe Merlot soaked happiness night after night, conjure up images of domestic perfection on-line and do a jolly good job of pretending that never was there a love like theirs.
But this isn’t meant to be an anti-marriage rant. I do not write it from the heart of a woman scorned. I was scorned but my own lack of both energy and commitment to the relationship contributed to that, and long after the relationship collapsed, love remains and for that I am grateful. I am not bitter. Because you see this isn’t about man-bashing. It is about being honest enough to say that sometimes the relationship does not survive our individual needs. It is about taking a huge big breath and saying “this just isn’t enough for me.” And not denying it the next day. I am not saying that every marriage is rotten at it’s core, I am saying that far too many of us deny our individual authenticity and buy into the belief that the marriage is itself a third being: a being who has to be humoured and cajoled into dissatisfied submission, while the other two parties that make up it’s whole wither.
While life very rarely offers us the opportunity to gather some perspective on our own marriages in the way that Marie enjoys in “Married Life”, it is up to us to only tolerate or indeed cherish, as the case may be, the kind of relationship that permits us to be whole beings, not halves of a lesser whole, or insignificant to the degree that we cease to hold opinions that count. It is up to us, as individuals, as human beings, more, as women, to do as Marie ultimately does in Edginton’s book and draw a line in the marital carpet and say here is where it stops. Here is where I begin and you end. Here is where we start again or we finally throw in the towel before indifference starts to spell out it’s name at the dinner table and other less intimate social gatherings.
While I am not certain that the ending of “Married Life” is satisfactory and at times the characters and language is certainly a little too delirious for modern tastes, nevertheless I found “Married Life” to be an astonishingly accurate portrait of young marriage, and both the domestic detail and the painfully honest insight into the kind of relationship we are meant to aspire to made it one of my favorite literary vintage rides for a very long time.
Read it and weep. Or read it and raise a cheer for the gumption of a woman snubbed. A woman ultimately defined not by her role as wife, but as who she is in spite of it.