No Concubine

Mary Beard

  • The Oxford Book of Marriage edited by Helge Rubinstein
    Oxford, 383 pp, £15.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 19 214150 3
  • The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive: Systems of Marriage and the Family in the Pre-Industrial Societies of Eurasia by Jack Goody
    Cambridge, 542 pp, £37.50, February 1990, ISBN 0 521 36574 0

There is not much romance in the average British Registry Office. The decorations are dirty and largely plastic, the notices forbidding. ‘Quiet please – marriage in progress,’ runs the standard government-issue warning hanging on the Registrar’s door – presumably to stop the expectant crowd in the waiting room disrupting the magic moments of those five minutes ahead in the queue. It is, after all, just a five-minute job – three minutes for handing over the fee and collecting your receipt, two for promising a lifetime’s commitment. And (in Cambridge at least – maybe other places have a more human face) the whole ceremony is conducted in the kind of petty bureaucratic style you associate with a driving test. Try asking to sign the register with your own pen. ‘No sir, it’s regulation blue or black ink I’m afraid,’ comes the response. ‘I’ll do it in black then,’ you say. ‘But we’ve only got blue.’ Smile please; kiss the bride; you’ve passed.

Rubinstein’s Book of Marriage does not touch on the routine, understated bad taste of so many British weddings. The nearest her anthology gets to a Registry Office is in Joan Didion’s account of the Las Vegas wedding ‘chapels’, whose extravagant vulgarities at least have some sense of style. Wishing-wells, piped organ music and Cadillacs on the house may not be everyone’s choice, but they would certainly brighten up what most British have to suffer in the process of getting wed. And the idea that these chapels offer a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week service also has its appeal. Better surely than 10 to 3.30 Monday to Saturday – and the sneaking suspicion that the grim-faced officiant has just fitted in registering a particularly nasty death in the five minutes before your appointment.

Rubinstein has chosen most of her extracts about the marriage ceremony itself from the safe, familiar classics of wedding literature. There is some point in this. For it is, after all, the literary tradition that bolsters our tawdry civil ceremony and gives it a symbolic excitement far beyond anything that the attenuated ritual itself deserves. The memory of the country church wedding still lies in the imagination of those thousands of couples whose confetti get blown away in the exhaust fumes of the Euston Road. The spectre of Mr Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, and the stunning interruption of his first attempt to marry Jane Eyre, still adds a frisson to the routine question on ‘just cause and impediment’. And those equally ‘literary’ figures of Charles and Di, the gallant prince leading his innocent young bride to the altar, provide an image of romance that still manages to support even the cheapest shotgun wedding. Surprisingly, Rubinstein found no place in her anthology for this royal epitome of marital perfection. But she makes up for this gap with a good deal from the private journals of Queen Victoria – who seems to have succeeded in convincing herself, at the same time as the rest of the world, that her all but arranged wedding to Albert was in fact the consummation of blinding romantic passion.

Literature has in one sense served the institution of marriage well. Like all the most effective mechanisms of social control, it has clothed what is necessarily humdrum and often second-best with an aura of glamour and romance. But, partly for this very reason, it is uncomfortably misleading on the day-to-day experience of married life. It is not just that most of us are quite simply not in the same league as Charles and Di (despite the bunkum preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury at their wedding, when he claimed that ‘every bride and groom on their wedding day are regarded as a royal couple’). It is also that the literary image portrays marriage as a series of passionate, emotional highlights: the proposal, the wedding itself, the first child, the adulterous affair, death or divorce. For most people, of course, those events sink inextricably into the comfortable (or dreary) domesticity of the married state.

The Oxford Book of Marriage closely reflects the dominant literary tradition. Rubinstein groups most of her extracts in chapters that focus on the classic ‘turning points’ within married life. The overall effect is disconcerting and strangely alien. It is rather like watching the Test Match highlights on the evening television news – the astonishing transformation of a game whose whole character depends on the long hours in which not much happens into a flurry of activity, wickets and sixes. In Rubinstein’s book marriage becomes a dramatic lurch from crisis to crisis. This is a paradoxical reversal of the patterns of ‘real life’, where marriages are regularly successful precisely because they offer the emotionally weary a reassuring escape from a life of grand passion; and where those who fail, fail more often because of marital boredom than because of passionate conflict.

Rubinstein is to some extent an inevitable prisoner of the literary tradition: a collection of literary passages is perhaps almost bound to turn out like this. But even so, her commitment to producing a ‘celebration’ of marriage and her rather narrow sense of what is appropriate in such a volume has compounded the problem. Modern feminist writing has had a lot to say about the day-to-day patterns of married life – and about the grinding repetition of those patterns (particularly in housework and child care) that serves so effectively to keep women as an under-class. But Rubinstein hardly acknowledges this material. She includes an (uncharacteristically opaque) one-liner from Germaine Greer, and a paragraph or two from Betty Friedan and Shulamith Firestone. And there is a nicely observed commentary on the domestic politics of child-rearing by Nora Ephron (‘Now it takes two parents to take the child to the doctor – one to do it and one to keep the one who does it from becoming resentful about having to do it’). Otherwise, Rubinstein says in her introduction, it was ‘difficult to find appropriate passages about marriage in contemporary feminist writing’. Why so difficult? Probably because feminists are trying to portray marriage in a way that would quite intentionally conflict with the traditional literary image. If, like Rubinstein, you see marriage as ‘a crucible for psychological growth’, you will not want to have your view sullied by writers who see it as a weapon of male dominance.

Unwitting support for the feminist case is often to be found in those many handbooks which claim to offer practical advice on marriage – whether to embark on it, how to survive it. Particularly memorable is one of the earliest of the genre – Xenophon’s Guide to Household Management written in the fourth century BC, and much concerned with ‘breaking in’ the teenage bride and getting her settled down to a life of spinning and weaving and caring for sick servants. But the modern versions are not much better. Our own Claire Rayner’s Marriage Guide – written, one imagines, for a largely female readership – is characterised by dire warnings about what lies in store for those about to marry and by flashes of optimism that are all too double-edged (‘removing wallpaper isn’t nearly as hard as you think’). It is perhaps not surprising that such material has not found its way into Rubinstein’s collection. But her sense that most historical pieces of this type ‘no longer convey any relevant wisdom to our generation’ is staggering for its naivety. Equally staggering is her rejection of ‘aphorisms, epigrams, wisecracks and old saws’ on the grounds that they are ‘at best only half-truths’ – as if ‘truth’ was at issue, and Queen Victoria, Alison Lurie and Sheila Kitzinger were closer approximations to it.

Within these limits, however, Rubinstein’s anthology has done its job efficiently and with some imagination. Despite its worryingly authoritative packaging (the ‘Oxford’ in the title, and – underneath Picasso’s Lovers on the dust-jacket – a binding that would look more at home on a prayer book), it has included at least a few passages that would discomfort the more conservative upholder of Anglican marriage. George Bernard Shaw’s frank admission that he was enjoying his solitude after his wife’s death and had ‘improved markedly in health’ is a pleasure to read amidst the grand pious tradition of conjugal grief from Homer onwards. And there is similar delight to be had in the marvellously ironic judgment on a bigamist from Mr Justice Maule (1788-1858). With a sense of humour and compassion that hardly seems the mark of the modern judiciary in this area, he sentenced the guilty man to just one day’s imprisonment, pillorying the 19th-century divorce laws that in practice offered only the rich the option of ending their marriages.

Part of the pleasure of the volume comes from its sometimes unexpected juxtapositions: a letter from Karl Marx to his wife Jenny following directly on Wordsworth writing to Mary; an 11th-century Chinese poet apparently voicing many of the same sentiments on the death of his wife as the very British Henry King, whose ‘Exequy’ comes next. It is, of course, the strength of any anthology that it can show us a world where, through time and space, the same problems seem to have been tackled with the same emotional armoury. It is in one sense reassuring, but the more cautious reader may nonetheless feel a certain unease.

Consider, for example, the apparent universality of the standard complaints about married life. It is always possible to pick out, as Rubinstein does, the classic passage from Euripides’s Medea, which appears to show the heroine lamenting the lot of a fifth-century Athenian wife for reasons that are strikingly familiar to us – the pain of childbirth, the husband’s disagreeable habits and his roving eye. But at what cost does that familiarity come? Do character and context (necessarily lost in the process of excerption) not make a difference? Can we really sustain our easy empathy when we know, as every Athenian would have known, that the speech concerned came from the mouth of a witch (and foreign too), who later in the play was to kill her two young children and send a murderous, flesh-dissolving robe to her husband’s new favourite? And does not the process of translation itself (again perhaps unavoidably) have an important effect, converting a quite alien emotional repertoire into our own, contemporary, terms?

It is surprising to feel on occasion the same kind of unease with Goody’s The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive. This is just the latest in a series of studies by Goody (five lengthy books in the last ten years) which have explored the relationship between anthropological and historical material in fields as diverse as cooking, literacy and (as in this case) family and kinship systems. His main aim in this volume is to challenge the normal assumption that traditional ‘oriental’ patterns of marriage and kinship are primitive, in comparison with the supposedly advanced systems of pre-industrial Europe; and to establish a fundamental similarity between basic family structure in the East and in the West. But his message goes beyond this, to attack our complacent ‘Kiplingesque’ sense of Western uniqueness – and to attack those academic specialists in Eastern culture who have, no doubt unintentionally, colluded with what has been the traditional Western evaluation of the Orient.

In many ways this is an extraordinary achievement. No one could contest Goody’s energy (a total of 542 pages here, to add to his several thousand over the past decade); nor his dazzling control of the literature on the family and social structure in both East and West (from incest in ancient Egypt to in-marrying sons-in-law in Finland; from Roman military tombstones to grounds for divorce in Hindu law). But even Goody, for all his strengths, fails to resolve the problem of how we should read and understand emotion and affection in past time.

In discussing ancient Roman attitudes to marriage, Goody quite properly questions one recent, and highly influential, view – which sees ideas of conjugal love emerging as an important element within Roman marriage only in the second century AD, after centuries of marital unions contracted for little purpose other than the transmission of property. He may well be right to feel some doubt about this wildly oversimplifying model, with its apparently cavalier dismissal of any emotion in marriage before the middle of the Roman empire. But he does not serve his argument very effectively by just quoting Porcia (wife of Brutus, the murderer of Julius Caesar), who is supposed to have shown a typically romantic or companionate attitude to marriage already in the first century BC: she is reported as saying to her husband that she married, ‘not as a concubine, to share only in bed and board, but as an equal partner in your prosperity and your troubles’.

Even if Porcia did say (and think) this, it is very hard to gauge what she would have meant by it in a first-century context. But she almost certainly did not say it anyway. For the ‘quote’ is preserved only in the work of Plutarch, who was writing early in the second century AD – and who may have been, unconsciously perhaps, reworking the marriage of these earlier Republican heroes (and giving them the appropriate lines) to fit with new notions of the marriage partnership. Conjugal affection, and its history, can be a knottier problem than even Goody allows.