Three Novels That Should Have Ended in Boston Marriage

For the Untutored

1. Fanny Price and Mary Crawford

“Should have ended” is not quite right here. Mansfield Park is a perfect book and cannot be improved, and if Mary Crawford is less monstrous than her Grendelesque brother, that is a testament to him, not her.

But entertain the possibility for a brief moment.

Mary, after losing Edmund’s love, sees the error of her wicked ways and clasps her arms around Fanny’s knees in a plea for forgiveness and redemption. Fanny, for her part, is too heartsick at Edmund’s obdurate preference for Mary and complicity in his family’s abuse of her to want anything more to do with him; besides, the deep wells of mercy in her are touched by the repentant sinner, and she takes Mary into her arms and under her wing. Mary’s income and abandonment of expensive vice enable them to rent a cottage: retired, secluded, not too far from Mansfield, where Mary’s moral education begins. She and Fanny read together, and Fanny teaches her the names of the constellations on clear nights. Mary grows every day in appreciation of Fanny’s sterling worth, as well as in her desire to protect and emulate her. She gives Fanny a hitherto unimaginable gift: a home where she is never mocked, never trampled on, never made to feel inferior, where her tastes are consulted, her opinions sought, her fears gently allayed, where Mary’s adroitness and acumen have turned to delicacy and solicitude in the care of Fanny’s feelings.   Mary teaches Fanny how to gallop, and Fanny gives Mary a conscience. Mary teases Fanny with the teasing of security and intimacy and equal familiarity, and Fanny begins to love it more than civility.

Mary becomes good, and Fanny quietly merry.

At one point. Edmund half-heartedly attempts to renew his advances to one or both parties. He is rejected but always welcomed in the cottage.

Henry dies of syphilis, and only Mary mourns.

2. Elizabeth Bennett and Charlotte Lucas

This only works if Lizzy gets Pemberley, so we will have to make her a recently bereft widow by a terrible pond-diving accident. In the mean-time, Charlotte has numbed herself to the horrors of days and nights as Mrs. Collins, and is accustomed to praying only for the sweet release of death when she gets the note from Lizzy.

“My dearest Charlotte,

In this sudden grief I have only one consolation—that I am now able to offer you a home. Pemberley is far too large for me to wander its halls alone with any comfort or propriety; and though I cannot promise that you shall ever dine with Lady Catherine should you join me here, I trust that the remembrance of our long friendship will induce you to overlook these deficiencies.

Your affectionate,

Lizzy”

That night, Charlotte brings up Lizzy’s proposal at the Collins family dinner table. Her husband not enthusiastic. That his wife should leave the protection of her own hearth, not to speak of her duties to husband, to parish, to her patroness—no, it was not to be borne.

“But consider, my love: Mr. Darcy was such a particularly beloved nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and if his widow condescends to call on me to condole with her in this time of affliction, I hardly know how to refuse . The greater the sacrifice of your comfort, the more your patroness must honor you for making it.”

Mrs. Collin’s bags are packed that night.

Mr. Collins soon finds he can bear the loss of his better half remarkably well, and Lizzy and Charlotte spend their days rambling about the grounds, educating Lydia’s children, and curating Pemberley’s library.

The only men regularly found on the premises are in livery.

3. Mary Garth and Dorothea Brooke

Throw Mary and Dorothea together before any of their massively inferior suitors get hold of them and you’ve got a partnership up there with Clare and Francis, Benedict and Scholastica. Dorothea would give Mary the intellectual companionship she’s never had, a relationship in which she is not the only adult, and scope for her talents unencumbered by the narrowing grind of penury and drudgery it imposes. Mary would temper Dorothea’s vision, not with fussy nay-saying, but with a grim practicality unfazed by the obstacles at which Dorothea’s sheltered delicacy quails. No one else can do this for Dorothea—not Cecilia, not Chettam, not her uncle, not Mrs. Cadwallader, not Will, not anyone who is less than her equal. The most they can do is suppress, or, in Will’s case, divert her visionary zeal. Mary would root Dorothea in the ground, and Dorothea would draw Mary up to the skies.

Will goes off to Italy to make sad pre-Raphaelitish paintings of Dorothea look-alikes. Fred learns to content himself with Mary’s stern motherly guidance. Casaubon finishes his book, or doesn’t. Mary and Dorotha found an egalitarian farming collective, several beguinages, and die within hours of each other at the ripe age of one hundred and five.

Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”

“You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.”

**

Among a subset of the thoughtful and orthodox, “it doesn’t matter who you marry” has become a bit of slogan. The line of thought behind it seems to go thus: we’re sold the notion that marital happiness, and marital obligations, depend on marrying “the one.” If you make a mistake, or your spouse’s personality changes, or you find yourself relating to them differently than you did at first, pulling up stakes and looking for a better deal falls somewhere between licit and incumbent. But in reality, what matters is the choice to get married, not who your partner is.

“It doesn’t matter who you marry” is an understandable reaction to a consumerist understanding of marriage and spiraling divorce rates; still, I have my doubts about its truth, utility, or prudence.

It is not clear that carefully considered, affection-driven spousal choice is an exclusively recent phenomenon. We can’t know the real lives, feelings, or practices of early 19th century couples from fictionalized accounts, but we can glean insight into what was socially valued, implicitly and explicitly, what was expected, what went without saying–hence the apt name “comedy of manners.” And even amid the venal machinations of Austen’s marriage plots, affection for a potential spouse and care in exercising one’s choice is presented as a standard, at least for the virtuous and well-bred.

Even in communities with no practice or concept of autonomy in courtship, the importance of a suitable match still shows up. Benjamin Franklin says in his autobiography

“I inquired concerning the Moravian marriages, whether the report was true that they were by lot. I was told that lots were used only in particular cases; that generally, when a young man found himself disposed to marry, he informed the elders of his class, who consulted the elder ladies that governed the young women. As these elders of the different sexes were well acquainted with the tempers and dispositions of their respective pupils they could best judge what matches were suitable, and their judgments were generally acquiesced in; but if, for example, it should happen that two or three young women were found to be equally proper for the young man, the lot was then recurred to. I objected, if the matches are not made by the mutual choice of the parties, some of them may chance to be very unhappy. “And so they may,” answered my informer, “if you let the parties choose for themselves”; which, indeed, I could not deny.”

It seems possible that it’s precisely the significance of whom you marry that moves some communities to take the decision out of the hands of the young couples themselves.

The discourse around the interchangeability of marital partners often implies that ideals of compatibility or the love-match are themselves the cause of current social ills. But low divorce rates and divorce stigma have co-existed with at least aspirational value attached to both scapegoats. This makes sense; presumably a robust understanding and institutional enforcement of marriage’s structure and obligations could support a variety of secondary norms.

Insofar as the problem is one of cultural misconceptions, the relevant point is not “what is the best way for an individual to enter into marriage?” but “what does the institution of marriage entail?”  As long as marriage in its socially constructed entirety exists only as a symbolic validation of love, or an at-will leisure activity that either party can opt out of at any moment, it will become perverse. It will sicken as an institution no matter how many individual couples keep their legally toothless vows, and whether the secondary norms attending it devolve on gendered labor, material security, interpersonal intimacy, political alliances, or sexual attraction.

It’s easy to see the aphoristic value of “it doesn’t matter who you marry,” or “just get married” here. The phrases jar the listener, reject the supposedly all-conquering powers of the soul-mate, and shift attention from personal happiness within marriage to a consideration of marriage itself. It’s entirely possible that proponents of marry-whomever-ism are engaging in a sophisticated bit of provocation designed to reframe cultural conversations about marriage rather than seriously presenting an alternative norm for how one should enter it.

But the aphorism needs at least an imaginary person’s particular plans and happiness as context, and so the futility of trying to address institutional breakdown at an individual level remains. Nor is futility the only problem.

Insofar as this advice has any teeth, it has them within communities already convinced of the seriousness of marriage. “It doesn’t matter whom you marry, just get married,” is unlikely to convince anyone who plans on a pre-nup, but it might convince very ardent, very young culture warriors who already see marriage as the sine qua non of a happy and valuable adult life. It’s most direct effect may be to encourage extremely imprudent action in a landscape that will offer the ardent couple very little succor in staying married once they have taken the plunge.

**

Not all reasons for care in spousal choice reduce marriage to a symbolic ceremony designed to validate and celebrate the discovery of “the one.” Marriage understood as the formation of a family implies an enormous undertaking, a shared project. The person with whom you enter into will not only be your ally and co-conspirator, your bedmate and sexual partner, but the father or mother of your children. Considered with the permanence and indissolubility of a sacramental marriage, all this tends very strongly towards discretion in decision, and a positive wish to marry rather than a negative and random default.

Nor is it true that people as a rule change so much as to render all consideration meaningless. People will change over a life-time of 60 odd years, and new circumstances always reveal new facets, but in general, major character traits do not simply disappear overnight–neither the good nor the bad ones. No matter what the flaws and virtues of a spouse, the duties of marriage remain, but it is criminally foolish and presumptuous to walk into a lifetime of avoidable difficulty in discharging your most serious obligations

Even romantic love, while not the absolute and only mode of marital choice, has some solid potential benefits behind it. Marriage creates a family bond between two previously unrelated people. The kind of love that sees with particular clarity and attention the excellences of the beloved, and that stakes a possessive claim on them, is not a bad kindle to the requisite fire. And the hardy, long-standing friendship that autonomous courtship often enables can make the transition from strangers to spouses, and to spousal friendship, a smoother and happier one.

Anyone who tells you that they are discerning a call “to the religious life” is nine tenths talk. Discernment starts when they find a house they might enter, when they encounter a specific charism and community of sisters to whom they might pledge their lives. And even after they enter to try their vocation, it takes long months of probation as a postulant before they are truly a sister, and often another three to five years before they make their final vows.

Entry to religious life, to which we are all called by virtue of our baptism, requires deliberation, persistence, and careful consideration of a particular community. The rigors of lifelong poverty and continence might require a superabundance of caution unnecessary with marriage, but still–uniting lives and families is serious business too.

**

Insofar as “It doesn’t matter whom  you marry” replaces erotic love with sacramental grace as a magical cure all, I’d like to see the concept go away.  There’s a blind romanticism to it, a fetishization of the leap into the unknown that, while rooted in something true about human relationships and commitments, distorts more than it reveals. What should replace it, I don’t know–there doesn’t seem to be a good slogan for marriage discernment. Don’t let stupid reasons stop you from marrying, but don’t rush imprudently into marriage. Don’t tell yourself that love is reducible to a feeling, but don’t try to will yourself into loving when it’s still time for taking the measure of your love. Don’t be afraid, don’t be an idiot.

Be good.

Chick Flicks and Tearjerkers

Fall is here, which means we are exactly a month away from Love Actually season and all its miseries.

It’s not so much that I mind the movie itself–the way it flaunts its manipulative triviality is almost endearingly goofy–its the inexplicable canonization as quintessential chick flick and tearjerker.

Because really, if we’re going to designate a special genre for sentimental dramas about women and their relationships (I would love to hear what the corresponding term for Braveheart and Field of Dreams is, by the way) I think we can do better than a film that largely consists of Alan Rickman cheating on Emma Thompson and Colin Firth mooning over the beautiful maid he’s never had a conversation with.

Behold, the real chick flicks, or at least a small sampling thereof.

 

Anne of Green Gables

When I was five and my sister was three, our best friend moved in next door to our grandparents. We did not know she was our best friend when she moved in, but it soon became obvious. We spent almost every moment of every subsequent summer together, on roofs and up trees, playing the kind of demented games that three very close, over-energetic, under-supervised children will invent. The highlight of every July was a sleepover spent watching Anne of Green Gables.

I had read the books, and loved them, but my sister and friend never did. It didn’t matter. The movie captures and distills a great part of the book’s dusty red, tree-lined heart, somehow making it its own. It’s the shots of Anne and Diana walking across a field, lit by the fall sunset, or through the tall dune grass (Anne walks by the sea with no one else), always accompanied by the fluting soundtrack. The total impression is of an idyllic Prince Edward Island whose visual and affective contours mirror the workings of memory–the way certain friendships, and certain moments in those friendships, exist always vivid, always enclosed and perfect, dipped in summery and autumnal golds.

I may or may not have teared up at this:

Anne’s sick and desperate face upon hearing that Diana is marrying the meek and worthless Fred (I love Bruce, but you must admit he was not fit to untie Anne’s shoelaces) says everything. Diana goes through with the wedding, but she kisses Anne first. Anne was always first.

The whole post, like the movie, is for anyone who’s fallen in love with a friend at at first sight, head over heels in total heartsick longing.

 

Sense and Sensibility

Out of innumerable Austen adaptations there are only two true greats: the six hour BBC Pride and Prejudice and the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility. The BBC Pride and Prejudice is a delicious, impeccable romp; its source material is less steeped in grief than Sense’s, and it is too busy being a perfect Austen adaptation to be anything else.

Sense and Sensibility, though, is that rarest of birds–an adaptation whose liberal tweaking is defensible and coherent, a marriage of minds in which the text shines through, but suffused with the particular vision of the adapter.

And what a lonely vision it is: the muted palette of steel grays and blues, the rainy skies, the expanses of Devonshire moor. It’s a lonely place, and a lonely movie; full of the pain of isolation and of being misapprehended, of worry and doubt and no one to share it with, of the ever present threat of loss. For Marianne, who cannot comprehend losing what she loves, and for Elinor, who always fears that she will.

Watch her beg Marianne not to leave her alone, then go call your sister, tell her you love her, and maybe weep to pianoforte music for an hour or so.

 

I am realizing now that almost every movie in this sampling is about sisters. I realize, and acknowledge, but I do not apologize. On to Little Women.

Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel charms and torments by turns. The March sisters, and their rich intra-familial life, and their fervent Trascendentalist context, are irresistible.  Alcott’s relentless didactic incursions into the text, on the other hand, nearly drove me to to distraction. I am a tolerant lady, tranquil as the flowing stream, but there are only so many speeches–often about feminine modesty and the sweet, tender power a maiden wields over young men who reverence her as the principle of womanly purity and the sacred domestic hearth–that a body can take.

And there’s then there’s jarring difference between the two mini-novels that comprise the whole.The first, Little Women, is a love letter to the March clan. The second, Good Wives, picks up after the marriage of the eldest daughter, and is a plodding, meandering account of a now less vibrant clan’s drift into marriages and death.The whole thing seems a vindication of Jo’s complaint “Why must we marry at all? Why can’t things just stay as they are?”

None of this even touches the book’s cardinal sin, the ghastly crime of Jo and Laurie (I cannot bring myself to speak that interfering German fathead’s name).

Rest assured, I am not implying that the plot is a crime against Laurie, that he “deserves her” just because he falls in love and knows how to wear a cravat. I am firmly opposed to women, fictional or otherwise, being handed off to men as prizes, no matter how prepossessing the waistcoat or necktie involved. The resolution of Jo’s love affairs is a crime against Jo and against the universe.

That two people who light each other up, who confide in and challenge each other, who have known and loved each other through the vagaries of youth, in whom the same slight piratical streak runs, should sunder on pretexts flimsier than the social safety net; that Jo must pretend that she would not be magnificent traipsing around Europe with husband Laurie–a rascally, growly belle laide–it is all unconscionable.

I do not know if Alcott felt compelled to punish Jo, or punish herself in Jo, or if she simply could not imagine a practicable sexual relationship without a large age gap and strong paternal subtext. Whatever the dreadful reason, there is little to be done now.

The film adaptation, oyster-like, does its best to soften all these irritants in a layers of nacre-gleaming excellence, and largely succeeds.

The fascinating, maddening, WASPy New England triad of patrician battiness, moral rigorism, and social conscience remains. It’s made more accessible, though, by the excision of Alcott’s direct address, and by making the feminist thread that runs through the book more explicit.

The casting doesn’t hurt either; Susan Sarandon’s jawline alone could play a credible Marmee, while Winona Ryder and Christian Bale simply are Jo and Laurie. Ryder in particular seems born for this role, and her eager, angular, beauty, almost poignantly evocative of a specific moment in time, perfectly captures Jo’s muddle of towering ambition and resistance to life’s onward march.

Much of the novel, necessarily, winds up jettisonned, but it’s hard to imagine how the final cut could be more perfect. The demands of on-screen concision go a long way towards mending the faults of the novel’s second half, chronicling Jo’s development and the unraveling of the March’s domestic knot without the episodic weariness of the book.

Perfection would perhaps entail grownup Amy married off to some polite and human-looking English lord, and Professor Bhaer darning socks alone in his boarding-house forever. But, since that is not to be, it is some comfort that the film really does the best it can.

Jo actually gets a love interest, not a grandfather, courtesy of the beautiful, beautiful Gabriel Byrne. She gets a a courtship, a real courtship that does not consist solely of Bhaer shuffling around and offering unsolicited opinions about what she should be writing. Laurie grows capitally offensive facial hair, which takes some of the salt out of the wound.

It’s not much, but against the backdrop of the telescoped years with Jo and her family, it’s more than enough.

Here is the soundtrack, in lieu of the Concord Farmhouse you really wanted.

 

A League of Their Own

When we did not feel like going out on weekends, my college roommate and I would build a nest of pillows and blankets on the floor of our room and curl up together to watch this movie (or, occasionally, Stardust; never anything else.)

There is little else to say about it, except that Geena Davis is resplendent and full of the warm female authority Jane Eyre spends most of a novel searching for.

Whether you are by nature a mule or a nag, if it’s on, you watch it, and if you watch it, you will cry.

 

 

Anastasia

 

Disney movies are all very well in their way, but none of them even come within a hundred miles of twanging the old heartstrings like Anastasia.

I don’t know whether it’s the hungry search for her family, or the confirmation of secretly harbored beliefs that one is probably a disinherited empress, or the delights of a fairy tale set in jazz age Paris, or just the thoroughness with which Anya crushes Rasputin under her immaculately shod heel.

I suspect though, that it’s largely something to do with the movie’s gleaming, wistful, ghostiness.

I mean, an amnesiac beggar-princess dancing with the ghosts of her executed sisters. What more do you want?

 

There are other movies, I am sure, that many will contend deserve top billing on this list–Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Thelma and Louise, The Color Purple, et cetera–but since I have not seen these films, I will let others make the case for them.

 

 

Aside

Was your Valentine’s day not all you expected? Did the man of your dreams turn out to be a two timin’ sonofa or closet Steven Crowder?  Or, even more common in these shameless modern times, did he ditch you for some broad with a thirty thousand pound dowry or fail to mention the mentally ill wife locked in his attic till you were on the point of saying “I do”?

Here, without further ado, is a breakup playlist inspired by the different* ways some of our favorite romantic heroines, broadly defined, handled heartbreak, split-ups, and rotten lovers..

Feel free, of course, to add your own.

Marianne Dashwood 

Honorable mention

Elinor Dashwood

Because, although she does not exactly tell Edward she should have changed that stupid lock, she should have made him leave his key, etc, she is a survivor if anyone is.

Honorable mention

Miss Havisham

Honorable mention

Jane Eyre, re Rochester

Honorable mention

Jane Eyre re St. John Rivers

Dido, Queen of Cathage

Honorable mention

Anne Elliot

Scarlett O’Hara

Cathy Earnshaw

Honorable mention, because I had to

Fanny Price re Henry Crawford

Ellen Olenska re Newland Archer

Ellen Olenska re Count Olenski

Tess Durbeyfield re Angel Clare

Medea

Jo March re Laurie

Maggie Tulliver re Philip, Stephen, dry land, life.

*Of course, there’s different and there’s….different