Hell is Other People

It's a tried and true narrative technique - start the book at the pivotal moment then work backwards and ultimately forward from the event. The biography of the famous actor starts when he wins the Oscar. The true crime book starts at the scene of the murder. The business expose starts when the FBI shows up with arrest warrants. Katie Roiphe uses the same technique in Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Literary Marriages. The challenge is recognizing the pivotal event that both encapsulate and unhinge the marriage in question.

If this book is any indication, literary marriages are very odd indeed. It's one thing to fret because your husband won't take out the garbage, it's quite another to wish he'd stop bringing his mistresses over for tea. These mini portraits run the gamut from seemingly traditional (H.G.Wells) to tragic (Katherine Mansfield) to litigious (Elizabeth von Armin) to groundbreaking (Vanessa Bell, Radclyffe Hall) to what I can only describe as "expansive" (Vera Brittain). At the center of these marriages is at least one enormous ego. Several feature multiple enormous egos (H.G. Wells and mistress Rebecca West, for example). If you're wondering whether an egomaniac can have a long, satisfying marriage this book is all the proof you'll ever need that peace and quiet won't be part of the equation.

Perhaps it's the era (early 20th century) but I was struck by how many of these people seemed to be playing at marriage. It wasn't that they didn't take it seriously, but they did treat it like a spectator sport whether the larger the audience the more authentic the effort. Vanessa Bell also seems to extend this logic to her baths - if her good friend Duncan Grant wanted to shave and she wanted to have a bath, why not all pile in together. All the couples here can't wait to tell friends or their diaries all about the latest unconventionalities of their marriages. Which is impressive - it's not easy to write and pat yourself on the back for your modern outlook at the same time.

The phrase "spoiled brats" came to mind several times while reading this book but to Roiphe's great credit not as often as it might have. Whether a husband is abandoning his gravely ill wife because sickness gives him the creeps or a husband is confessing that he has two pregnant mistresses on his hands, Roiphe manages to write with sympathy about these people while still maintaining a critical eye. One of her best lines is when she observes of John Murry "He seemed to believe .. that honesty itself would exonerate him." Also, while you're confessing, the spotlight is entirely on you.

This is an engaging book that is often as much fun as a fabulously trashy novel. Affairs, open marriages, lawsuits, interior decorating and shopping addiction are all on prominent display. Roiphe is entranced by "how ardently they tried" to make their non-traditional marriages work and there is something sweetly charming about, say, how proud Katherine Mansfield and husband John Middleton Murry are of their steadfast devotion to each other - even though they can't manage to stay in the same county together for more than a week. It's also a bit comforting to see that even when one stretches the boundaries of what "marriage" means, it's still hard work in any era.

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