Review Of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits Of Married Life in London Literary Circles

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 7/3/09

  In the postscript of her latest non-fiction book, Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles (1910-1939) Katie Roiphe comments on the ideas of these marriages having been, “These hours lived, painful, messy, exhilarating, richly chaotic, are another kind of art.” It is the belief in this very sentiment why books like Uncommon Arrangements are written. That, amid the creativity of the artists’ work, lives the ‘art’ of the everyday, and likewise, the artists’ way of coping with it.

  There is no doubt that artists are generally selfish people, and in Roiphe’s book, she focuses on seven separate marriages, compressing them to a core and in crisis, giving us a glimpse into their love lives, however brief. A photo accompanies every chapter, and it comes to no surprise to see few are smiling and most everyone looks miserable. Take for example the life of H.G. Wells, who, despite his creative talents, proves to be nothing more than an overgrown child. He was as many male artists, torn between having the comfortable home and dutiful wife who “made it possible for the fussy and sensitive Wells to sit down and do his work” and yet still having that sexual yearning for the much younger and independent woman, Rebecca West. Likewise, he was attracted to her independence but not when it brought competition. Or take the marriage between Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, two people that “had elaborate fantasies of a perfect, bookish, domesticity, but fantasy is what they were both most proficient at- ordinary life they found harder.”

  These seven couples, all of whom are rich, are all, in some way or other, left unsatisfied. In the marriage between Elizabeth Von Arnim and John Francis Russell, Roiphe describes Elizabeth as someone who is “strong, witty, clever, luminous- and like Jane Austen’s characters she overpowered many men.” But this largely contrasts to Elizabeth’s married life, where her husband would often refuse to let her out of the house without his permission. Russell’s male aggression was so domineering that Roiphe refers to him as a “parody of male dominance,” something that seemed to attract Elizabeth. Roiphe then culls from Elizabeth Von Arnim’s novel, Elizabeth and Her German Garden to show how life gets reflected in art. In one particular scene, Roiphe quotes Elizabeth’s female character stating, “A civilized husband is a creature who has ceased to be a man.” Perhaps Roiphe is overreaching her assumptions, for readers will never know what degree of intrigue Elizabeth Von Arnim had for male dominance because one can never assume to fully know any artist based on her art. Likewise, we are also given glimpses into the triangular relationship between Vanessa and Clive Bell, with that of Vanessa’s sister, Virginia Woolf. With implied incest, there are moments where we don’t know if Woolf’s jealousy towards the couple’s marriage spawned out of want for Vanessa’s husband or for Vanessa herself. We also have the triangular relationship between Radclyffe Hall (the woman novelist who went by the name ‘John’) and the jealousies between her two female lovers: Una Troubridge and Evguenia Souline.

  Jealousy is a recurring theme among these couples, as well as the ennui felt by the daily routine of their couple hood. All of the parties involved seem to have a dissatisfaction with conventional life, and yet they cannot pull themselves from it fully. In some way they all feel that “conventionality is deadness” to quote Lady Ottoline Morrell, who was what Roiphe describes as, “someone with the painful sensitivities of an artist but without the talent.”

  Some couples even resorted to novelist Vera Brittain’s idea of a “semi-detached marriage,” or one that is free to explore other relationships all the while only seeming to benefit one married member, leaving the other miserable. While Brittain seemed to enjoy her freedom, her husband George Gordon Catlin remained bitter and jealous over his wife’s affairs and literary success. 

  Yet, it is difficult to empathize with people one could easily call ‘spoiled’, but this book is a good portrayal of selfish artists, writers specifically, and the battle between needing that comfortable stability in which one needs to create, and that yen to uproot and live amid distress, self-inflicted. Entertaining highbrow gossip, or more specifically, a good beach read for one with a literary bent, Roiphe has done her research well, and is clearly skilled in her prose. She shows us in these pages that the marriages suffering aren’t the problem, but are the effects of something greater: narcissism and insecurity. Readers will benefit by glimpsing into their speeded-up turmoil that can take years, even decades to build. Gone is the minutia of their daily lives. But what we find is that ennui was the enemy: the turmoil they could take.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website.]


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