Compromises/Marriage in Fiction

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MARRIAGE IN FICTION

They fought bitter and regular, like man and wife.

Since the days of Richardson and Fielding, English novelists have devoted themselves with tireless energy to the pleasant task of match-making. They have held this duty to be of such paramount importance that much of their work has practically no other raison d'être. They write their stories—so far as we can see—solely and entirely that they may bring two wavering young people to the altar; and they leave us stranded at the church doors in lamentable ignorance of all that is to follow. Thackeray once asked Alexandre Dumas why he did not take up the real history of other people's heroes and heroines, and tell the world what their married lives were like.

It would have been a perilous enterprise, for, notwithstanding two centuries of practice, novelists are astonishingly bad match-makers. We know what happened when Thackeray himself undertook to continue the tale of Ivanhoe and Rowena, whom Scott abandoned to their fate, with merely a gentle hint of some mental deviations on the bridegroom's part. Sir Walter, indeed, always shook hands with his young couples on their wedding-day, and left them to pull through as best they could. Their courtships and their marriages interested him less than other things he wanted to write about,—sieges and tournaments, criminal trials, and sour Scottish saints. He had lived his own life bravely and happily without his heart's desire; he believed that it was the fate of most men to do the same; and he clung stoutly to Dryden's axiom:—

Secrets of marriage still are sacred held,
Their sweet and bitter from the world concealed.

In real life this admirable reticence is a thing of the past; but the novelist, for the most part, holds his peace, leaving his readers a prey to melancholy doubts and misgivings.

The English-speaking novelist only. In French fiction, as Mr. Lang points out, "love comes after marriage punctually enough, but it is always love for another." The inevitableness of the issue startles and dismays an English reader, accustomed to yawn gently over the innocent prenuptial dallyings of Saxon man and maid. The French story-writer cannot and does not ignore his social code which urbanely limits courtship. When he describes a girl's dawning sentiment, he does so often with exquisite grace and delicacy; but he reserves his portrayal of the master passion until maturity gives it strength, and circumstances render it unlawful. His conception of his art imposes no scruple which can impede analysis. If an English novelist ventures to treat of illicit love, the impression he gives is of a blind, almost mechanical force, operating against rather than in unison with natural laws. Those normal but most repellent aspects of the case, which the Frenchman treats openly and exhaustively, the Englishman ignores or rejects. His theory of civilization is built up largely—and wisely—on suppression.

But why should the sentiment or passion of love be the chosen theme of story-writers, to the practical exclusion of other interests? Why should it be the central point around which their tales revolve? When we look about us in the world we know, we cannot think that love is taking up much time and attention in people's lives. It dominates gloriously for a brief period,—or for brief periods,—and then makes way for other engrossing influences. Its might and authority are recognized; but the recognition does not imply constant concern. The atmosphere of life is not surcharged with emotion, as is the atmosphere of fiction. Society is not composed of young men and women falling madly but virtuously in love with one another, nor of married men and women doing the same thing on less legitimate lines.

To these rational arguments, which have been urged by restless critics before now, M. Paul Bourget makes answer that novelists deal with love because, under its white heat, all characteristics become more vividly alive, and are brought more actively and more luminously into play. Man is never so self-revealing as when consumed by passion. We see into his heart, only when it is lit by the flame of desire. Moreover, love being natural, and in a manner inevitable, there is not in treating of it that suggestion of artifice which chills our faith in most of the incidents of fiction.

But is the man whom we see revealed by the light of love the real man? Can we, after this transient illumination, say safely to ourselves, "We know him well"? Is it his true and human self, son naturel, to use an admirable old French phrase, which is both quickened and betrayed by passion? Putting cynicism aside, rejecting Lord Bacon's dictum, "Love is a nuisance, and an impediment to important action," we are still doubtful as to the value of traits studied under these powerful but perishable conditions. It is not what a man does when he is in love, but what he does when he is out of love (Philip drunk to Philip sober) which counts for characterization. That pleasant old romancer, Maistro Rusticiano di Pisa, tells us that a courtier once asked Charlemagne whether he held King Meliadus or his son Tristan to be the better man. To this question the Emperor made wise reply: "King Meliadus was the better man, and I will tell you why. As far as I can see, everything that Tristan did was done for love, and his great feats would never have been done, save under the constraint of love, which was his spur and goad. Now this same thing can never be said of King Meliadus. For what deeds he did, he did them, not by dint of love, but by dint of his strong right arm. Purely out of his own goodness he did good, and not by constraint of love."

It is this element of coercion which gives us pause. Not out of his own goodness, nor out of his own badness, does the lover act; but goaded onward by a force too impetuous for resistance. When this force is spent, then we can test the might of his "strong right arm." Who that has read it can forget the matchless paragraph of adjectives in which the Ettrick Shepherd contrasts the glowing deceits of courtship with the sober sincerities of married life? "Love," he sighs, "is a saft, sweet, bright, balmy, triumphant, and glorious lie, in place of which nature offers us in mockery during a' the rest o' our lives the puir, paltry, pitiful, faded, fushionless, cauldrified, and chittering substitute, truth."

Small wonder that novelists content themselves with making matches, and refrain from examining too closely the result of their handiwork. They would have more conscience about it, if it were not so easy for them to withdraw. They are almost as irresponsible as poets, who delight in yoking unequal mates, as proof of the power of love. Poetry weds King Cophetua to the beggar maid, and smilingly retires from any further contemplation of the catastrophe. Shakespeare gives Celia—Celia, with her sweet brown beauty, her true heart, her nimble wit, her grace of exquisite companionship—to that unnatural sinner, Oliver; and the only excuse he offers is that Oliver says he is sorry for his sins. So I suppose Helen of Troy said she regretted her indiscretion, and this facile repentance reinstated her in happy domesticity. But the novelist is not at play in the Forest of Arden. He is presumably grappling with the dismal realities of earth. Nothing could be less like a fairy playground than the village of Thrums ("If the Auld-Licht parishioners ever get to heaven," said Dr. Chalmers, "they will live on the north side of it"); yet it is in Thrums that Mr. Barrie marries Babbie to the Little Minister,—marries her with a smile and a blessing, as though he had solved, rather than complicated, the mysterious problem of life.

The occasional and deliberate effort of the novelist to arrange an unhappy union in order to emphasize contrasts of character is an advance toward realism; but the temporary nature of such tragedies (which is well understood) robs the situation of its power. In the typical instance of Dorothea Brooke and Mr. Casaubon, George Eliot deemed it necessary to offer careful explanation of her conduct,—or of Dorothea's,—and she rather ungenerously threw the blame upon Middlemarch society, which was guiltless before high Heaven, and upon the then prevalent "modes of education, which made a woman's knowledge another name for motley ignorance." In reality, Dorothea was alone responsible; and it is hard not to sympathize with Mr. Casaubon, who was digging contentedly enough in his little dry mythological dust-heaps when she dazzled him into matrimony. It is hard for the unregenerate heart not to sympathize occasionally with Rosamond Vincy and with Tito Melema, whom George Eliot married to Lydgate and to Romola, in order that she might with more efficacy heap shame and scorn upon their heads. The moral in all these cases is pointed as unwaveringly as the compass needle points to the North Star. This is what happens when noble and ignoble natures are linked together. This is what happens when the sons of God wed with the daughters of men. We are not to suppose that it was poor Mr. Casaubon's failure to write his "Key to all Mythologies," nor even his ignorance of German, which alienated his wife's affection; but rather his selfish determination to sacrifice her youth and strength on the altar of his vanity,—a vanity to which her early homage, be it remembered, had given fresh impetus and life.

The pointing of morals is not, however, the particular function of married life. The problem it presents is a purely natural one, and its ethical value is not so easily ascertained. For the most part the sons of men wed with the daughters of men. They do not offer the contrast of processional virtues and of deep debasement; but the far wider contrast of manhood and of womanhood, of human creatures whose minds and hearts and tastes and instincts are radically unlike; who differ in all essentials from the very foundations of their being. "Our idea of honour is not their idea of honour," says Mr. Lang, speaking for men, and of women; "our notions of justice and of humour are not their notions of justice and of humour; nor can we at all discover a common calculus of the relative importance of things."

This is precisely why we wish that novelists would not neglect their opportunities, and shirk their responsibilities, by escaping at the church door. What did really happen when Babbie married the little Minister, and added to the ordinary difficulties of wedlock the extraordinary complications of birth and training, habits and character, irreconcilably at variance with the traditions of the Auld-Licht rectory? We know how the mother of John Wesley,—and incidentally of eighteen other children,—a dour, stern, pious parson's wife, refused to say amen to her husband's prayer for King William, and dwelt apart from her reverend spouse and master for twelve long months, rather than relinquish a sentiment of loyalty for the rightful sovereign of the land. Such incidents stand in our way when we are told musically that—

Love will still be lord of all.

Mrs. Wesley loved her husband, and she did not love the banished and papistical James; yet it was only King William's death (a happy and unforeseen solution of the difficulty) which brought her back to submission and conjugal joys.

For one of the most ill-assorted marriages in fiction Miss Austen must be held to blame. It was this lady's firm conviction (founded on Heaven knows what careful and continued observation) that clever men are wont for the most part to marry foolish or stupid women. We see in nearly all her books the net results of such seemingly inexplicable alliances. In what moment of madness did Mr. Bennet ask Mrs. Bennet to be his wife? Nothing can explain such an enigma; but Miss Austen's philosophy, and her knowledge of that commonplace middle-class English life, which the eighteenth century had stripped bare of all superfluous emotions, enabled her to prove—to her own satisfaction at least—that Mr. Bennet was tolerably content with the situation. It is not too much to say that he enjoys his wife's absurdities. Only in his few earnest words to Elizabeth, when Darcy has asked for her hand: "My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life," do we catch a glimpse of the Valley of Humiliation which he has trodden for twenty-four years. A still more emphatic illustration of Miss Austen's point of view is afforded us in "Sense and Sensibility," when Eleanor Dash wood decides that Mrs. Palmer's surpassing foolishness cannot sufficiently account for Mr. Palmer's rudeness and discontent. "His temper might perhaps be a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that, through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman; but she knew that this kind of blunder was too common for any sensible man to be lastingly hurt by it."

Fortified by such philosophy, convinced that the natural order of things, though mysterious and unpleasant, does not entail unhappiness, Miss Austen deliberately marries Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland; marries them after an engagement long enough to have opened the bridegroom's eyes, were it not for the seventy merciful miles which lie between Northanger Abbey and the rectory of Fullerton. With an acute and delicate cynicism, so gently spoken that we hardly feel its sting, she proves to us, in a succession of conversations, that "a good-looking girl with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward." When Catherine delivers her priceless views upon the unprofitable labour of historians, we know that Mr. Tilney's fate is sealed.

"You are fond of history!—and so are Mr. Allen and my father; and I have two brothers who do not dislike it. So many instances within my small circle of friends is remarkable. At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well; but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate. And though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person's courage that could sit down on purpose to do it."

To be told that history is made admirable because you read it, is flattering indeed. Mr. Tilney is satisfied that Catherine has "a great deal of natural taste,"—an impression which her artless admiration for his talents deepens into agreeable certainty. When he asks her hand in marriage, Miss Austen reminds us with dispassionate candour that his attachment originated in gratitude. "A persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of his giving her a serious thought." There is a final jest about beginning "perfect happiness" at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen, and the curtain is rung down upon a lifetime of irrational ennui.

The world of the novelist is full of such strange mishaps, and our sense of inquietude corresponds with our conviction of their reality. Mrs. Ward probably does not expect us to believe that Jacob Delafield and Julie Le Breton lived happily and harmoniously together. There is something as radically inharmonious in their marriage as in the union of conflicting elements. It is not a question of taking chances of happiness, as Sophia Western takes them with Tom Jones (very good chances, to my way of thinking); it is a question of unalterable laws by which the gods limit our human joy. But there is no sharp sense of disappointment awakened in our hearts when we read "Lady Rose's Daughter," as when more powerful currents of emotion turn awry. That Henry Esmond should have married Lady Castlewood, or rather, that he should not have married Beatrix, I count one of the permanent sorrows of life.

In an exceedingly clever and ruthlessly disagreeable novel by Mr. Bernard Shaw, "Cashel Byron's Profession," there is a brief, clear exposition of that precise phase of life which novelists, as a rule, decline to elucidate. Cashel Byron is a prize-fighter, a champion light-weight, well-born (though he does not know it) and of cleanly life; but nevertheless a prize-fighter, with the instincts, habits, and vocabulary of his class. A young woman, rich, refined, bookish, brought up in a rarefied intellectual atmosphere which has starved her healthy sentiment to danger point, falls helplessly in love with his beauty and his strength, and marries him, in mute desperate defiance of social laws. The story closes at this point, but the author adds a brief commentary, designed to explain the limited possibilities of happiness that exist for the ex-pugilist and his wife.

"Cashel's admiration for Lydia survived the ardour of his first love for her, and she employed all her forethought not to disappoint his reliance on her judgment. She led a busy life, and wrote some learned monographs, as well as a work in which she denounced education as practised in the universities and public schools. Her children inherited her acuteness and refinement, with their father's robustness and aversion to study. They were precocious and impudent, had no respect for Cashel, and showed any they had for their mother principally by running to her when they were in difficulties. … The care of this troublesome family had one advantage for her. It left her little time to think about herself, or about the fact that, when the illusion of her love passed away, Cashel fell in her estimation. But the children were a success, and she soon came to regard him as one of them. When she had leisure to consider the matter at all, which seldom occurred, it seemed to her that, on the whole, she had chosen wisely."

Here are conditions which, if presented at length and with sufficient skill, might hold us spellbound. Here is an opportunity to force conviction, were the novelist disposed to grapple with his real work. As it is, Mr. Shaw contents himself with adding one more to the marital failures of fiction. Dr. Johnson said that most marriages would turn out as well if the Lord Chancellor made them. The Lord Chancellor would assuredly make them better than that blundering expert, the novelist.