three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
30-Sept-Oct-2007
By: 
Katie Roiphe
user_rating: 
0

Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910–1939

A-Uncommon Arrangements"Why should I have a sort of moral obligation to see that you eat enough?" grumbled Vera Brittain when her husband, George Catlin, objected to living in separate cities. The heady, carefree lull between the wars inspired many—including Katherine Mansfield, Radclyffe Hall, Virginia Woolf, and Bertrand Russell—to challenge their parents’ stuffy Victorian morality and redefine the institution of marriage based on "an enduring faith in rationality, in the power of intellect to subdue emotion." H. G. Wells persuaded his wife that she shouldn’t be jealous of his mistresses since he openly described his dalliances in detail. Vanessa Bell moved her lover into the house she shared with her husband and children. These idealized, nontraditional relationships, however, rarely withstood the messy reality of human nature.
Dial Press. 352 pages. $26. ISBN: 0385339372

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Roiphe skillfully manages not only to illuminate an era and its ideals, but also—through reliance on memoirs and personal correspondence—to create engaging portraits of her complex and often amusing subjects (most of whom knew one another). … That all these gifted, imaginative people should fail so dramatically in their marital experimentation is as fascinating as it is sad." Marjorie Kehe

Time 3.5 of 5 Stars
"‘Marriage is perpetually interesting; it is the novel that most of us are living in,’ writes Katie Roiphe. She proves her point with an elegant, absorbing social history of marriage among London’s literary elite from 1910 to 1939."

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Roiphe takes her subjects’ ideas and dilemmas seriously, though not quite as seriously as they took themselves, and from that discrepancy arises much of the book’s wisdom and wit. Her writing displays an intimate knowledge of the era, and when she resorts to speculating about her subject’s interior states, her guesses are always limited and convincing." David Propson

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Roiphe is at her most insightful—and funniest—in showing us where the declared credo of her characters collides with reality. Their efforts to domesticate emotion with reason were regularly foiled by insurrections of the heart." Tina Brown

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Never didactic, Roiphe is a sensitive, insightful interpreter of her subjects, and her take on them is well worth having, especially in view of her knowledge and understanding of the milieus in which they acted out their personal dramas. Only occasionally does she slip, as when she has Lytton Strachey bringing flowers and books to Lady Morrell’s deathbed in 1938: That would have been quite a trick on his part and might even have made her sit up, since he had been dead for more than six years by then." Martin Rubin

Philadelphia Inquirer 3 of 5 Stars
"Roiphe may be overreaching in her assumptions. … Entertaining highbrow gossip it may be, a good beach read for those with a literary bent, but Roiphe has done her research well, and is clearly a skilled writer." Jessica Schneider

Critical Summary

What is it that makes intimate portraits of failed relationships so fascinating? Katie Roiphe doesn’t romanticize or make excuses for her complex subjects and their entanglements but treats them with wit, warmth, and respect. Despite a few historical inaccuracies and questionable assumptions, critics considered Roiphe’s perceptive exploration of unconventional marriages in the early 20th century a success. It can be difficult to empathize with the selfish and arrogant people who populate this book, but these revealing accounts are nevertheless captivating, the narrative intelligent and absorbing. Roiphe has done her research and produced an elegant, provocative, and entertaining description of an era and some of its more eccentric denizens.

Supplemental Reading

Parallel Lives Five Victorian Marriages | Phyllis Rose (1984): An enjoyable, compelling look at the unconventional marriages of five literary couples in Victorian England, including those of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, John Ruskin, and Thomas Carlyle.

The Lives of the Muses Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired | Francine Prose (2002): 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2003 Lively, sparkling portraits of nine women who ignited the imaginations of some of the leading artists and intellectuals of the last 300 years, including Dr. Samuel Johnson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and John Lennon.