Law and Conversation

May 11, 2011

Miserable marriages in literature

To my disappointment, I couldn’t find any fictional stories containing prenuptial agreements to accompany my recent post on the royal wedding and prenups.  But fiction abounds in unhappy marriages, as the Guardian recently observed.

In addition to the Guardian’s recommendations of Edward Albee‘s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” and Henry James‘s “Portrait of a Lady,” I’d recommend George Eliot‘s “Middlemarch,” and Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” and “The Custom of the Country.” And for a stunningly well-crafted saga of an absolutely dreadful marriage between two absolutely dreadful people from two absolutely dreadful families, John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy is hard to beat. (To be fair, those dreadful people are three-dimensional, and from the circumstances that Updike presents, the reader can understand, if not excuse, why they’re as dreadful as they are.)

All of these books are classics, meriting reading and rereading.  But they’re only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fictional depictions of miserable marriages.

Do you think prenuptial agreements would have mitigated the fallout of any of the marriages depicted in these works? And am I being too hard on Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and his family?

May 9, 2011

Read this: more Jane Gardam, on marriage

A few months ago I recommended reading Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth,” a novel told from the point of view of Edward Feathers, an elderly British barrister who is looking back over his long life and distinguished career. By itself, the book is a gem. To fully appreciate the story, though, you need to read its companion novel, “The Man in the Wooden Hat.”

In “Old Filth,” we learn something about Feathers’s long and seemingly staid marriage to Elisabeth (Betty). In “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” Gardam tells the story of Feathers’s marriage from Betty’s point of view. The resulting portrait is surprisingly complex and anything but dull.

I thought of Gardam’s fictional stories of the Feathers’s marriage in connection with the recent wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Last week I wrote that I fully expect theirs to be a long and happy union, though, of course, nothing in this life is ever certain.

All marriages have many facets, though, and unhappy ones are more often the stuff of novels than happy ones. Please check back on Wednesday when I’ll have some recommendations for more reading on marriage in fiction.

There’ve been some snarky assessments on the ‘net of Prince William’s genetic odds of marital longevity. Granted, the marriages of several of his parents’ generation haven’t held up so well, but that of his paternal grandparents is now going on 65 years. His paternal great-grandparents appear to have been models of devotion, as the movie “The King’s Speech” depicts. And his father, whose marriage to Princess Diana was a disaster, has to all appearances remained in love with his current wife (and she with him) for decades.

The new Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, was voted the third most beautiful royal beauty in a poll on a dating site shortly before her wedding, the Telegraph reported. I wouldn’t argue about Kate or any of the other placeholders, but I wonder why we never see the reigning Queen Elizabeth, who as a young woman was as stunning as any classic or modern beauty and who now has the look of a lovely grandmother, on such lists?

April 29, 2011

The royal wedding, law, and story

UK freelance writer Alex Aldridge has provided a 3-part legal perspective on today’s royal wedding for Above The Law, including quotes from some who believe that Will and Kate have a signed prenuptial agreement and at least one who thinks they don’t. And Penelope Trunk lends some affirmation for my fascination with the royal wedding by acknowledging her own in a thoughtful post in which she muses on how Will and Kate will build a happy life together by finding meaningful work.

Media reports notwithstanding, we don’t and can’t really know much of the real story of this royal couple’s romance–though it’s very pleasant to see that they seem happy and very much in love, and at least as likely to remain so as any newlyweds. For some really detailed accounts of other aristocratic relationships, history provides a more fertile field.

It’s hard to beat Stella Tillyard‘s “Aristocrats,” the story of Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832, for a marvelous story of 18th century marriage among the English gentry. For other stories of upper-class alliances that clearly set forth the role of completely non-romantic factors in marriage negotiations–i.e. money and social rank–read not only the nonfiction “Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt:  The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age,” by Amanda Mackenzie Stewart, but also any of Jane Austen‘s novels and Edith Wharton‘s sadly unfinished “The Buccaneers,” among other titles.  What I’m currently reading, Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” is a completely cynical look at marriage among the 19th century’s English upper classes that’s guaranteed to cast a dark veil over any starry eyes.

Stella Tillyard said “I’ve always thought that one of the reasons why people read biography is to find out ordinary things. We tend to read the lives of extraordinary people in order to find out details of ordinary life.” What do you think?

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