Divorce me

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Love, Sex, Marriage and Divorce by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
    Cape, 384 pp, £8.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 224 01602 4

Twelve years ago Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy got divorced after ten years of marriage. In the unhappiness that followed he thought about himself and about society: would it break down too? In 1969, the year Mr Gathorne-Hardy got his decree nisi, there were 60,000 divorces in Britain: in 1980 there were 150,000. ‘During the last century of the Roman Empire, as a great civilisation collapsed, a raging epidemic of divorces roared unchecked.’ A terrifying parallel? Seemingly not. ‘Even quite general knowledge about the past can have a calming effect,’ Gathorne-Hardy says and he should know because his knowledge is very general. ‘Roman culture’ was ‘too superficial to withstand the temptations that beset it’, and ‘the result was a moral collapse which we do not only not approach but can barely envisage.’ (The source for Gathorne-Hardy’s remarks about the Roman Empire is Jerome Carcopino’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome, published in translation by Routledge in 1941, when Carcopino was Minister of National Education in the Vichy Government.) What’s happening to us is much grander: a ‘vast reorganisation of the modern psyche’, a ‘profound change in human consciousness’.

‘I see you have written a book about yourself and called it The World Crisis,’ Arthur Balfour once said to Churchill. Mr Gathorne-Hardy is the author of two well-known books, The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny and The Public School Phenomenon: records not of his life but of his kind – tribal history. Love, Sex, Marriage and Divorce translates into world history the three-year analysis he underwent in the wake of his divorce. Now he is the doctor and we (his readers) the patient. ‘We must begin,’ he says, ‘like any sensible analyst does ... by looking into the past.’ And what we see when we look into it is that it was never all that stable or all that virtuous. (‘Until the late Middle Ages frequent changes of partner were quite usual.’) It follows that there is nothing peculiarly bad or difficult about the present: ‘This is an age, uniquely, of anxiety and stress. You find this obvious – a cliché even? A cliché it certainly is. I don’t for one moment think it is true.’ Analysts are always inclined to make light of their patients’ troubles. Least said (by the analyst), soonest mended.

Psychoanalysis, as its critics have never been slow to point out, is a form of treatment resorted to by those who, in a sociological sense, have nothing to worry about. The troubles that preoccupy Mr Gathorne-Hardy can similarly be construed as the product of unusual good fortune. His title is deceptive. Love, sex and marriage are contingent: what interests him is the divorce they lead to. The first cause of divorce is sex – not its failure but its staggering availability. This is the work – in Gathorne-Hardy’s telling, the single-handed achievement – of Kinsey, who ‘turned sexual freedom, from being a trend among the élite and literate, into a mass movement, possibly for the first time in history’. That Kinsey – Alfred C. Kinsey, Professor of Zoology, as he liked to be known – was a thoughtful man is indicated by the first paper he wrote: ‘What do birds do when it rains’. He was by nature a collector, and in his early years was devoted to the wasp: so devoted that he was eventually in a position to give the Natural History Museum a collection of four million different wasps. Although he disclaimed any interest in altering behaviour (Gathorne-Hardy: ‘This is rubbish’), he was always eager to point out that it was the most respectable people who had the busiest sex lives – ‘time and again a lawyer who has masturbated 40 times a week,’ Gathorne-Hardy notes, ‘will be “distinguished in his profession” ’ – and, conversely, that adolescents who came to sex early were, in Kinsey’s words, more ‘alert, energetic, vivacious, spontaneous, socially extrovert and/or aggressive individuals in the population’ than those who got to it late.

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