Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939

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9780385339377: Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939

Katie Roiphe’s stimulating work has made her one of the most talked about cultural critics of her generation. Now this bracing young writer delves deeply into one of the most layered of subjects: marriage. Drawn in part from the private memoirs, personal correspondence, and long-forgotten journals of the British literary community from 1910 to the Second World War, here are seven “marriages à la mode”—each rising to the challenge of intimate relations in more or less creative ways. Jane Wells, the wife of H.G., remained his rock, despite his decade-long relationship with Rebecca West (among others). Katherine Mansfield had an irresponsible, childlike romance with her husband, John Middleton Murry, that collapsed under the strain of real-life problems. Vera Brittain and George Gordon Catlin spent years in a “semidetached” marriage (he in America, she in England). Vanessa Bell maintained a complicated harmony with the painter Duncan Grant, whom she loved, and her husband, Clive. And her sister Virginia Woolf, herself no stranger to marital particularities, sustained a brilliant running commentary on the most intimate details of those around her.

Every chapter revolves around a crisis that occurred in each of these marriages—as serious as life-threatening illness or as seemingly innocuous as a slightly tipsy dinner table conversation—and how it was resolved...or not resolved. In these portraits, Roiphe brilliantly evokes what are, as she says, “the fluctuations and shifts in attraction, the mysteries of lasting affection, the endurance and changes in love, and the role of friendship in marriage.” The deeper mysteries at stake in all relationships.

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About the Author:

Katie Roiphe received her Ph.D. from Princeton in English literature. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Esquire, Vogue, Harper’s, and the New Yorker. Her previous books include The Morning After, Last Night in Paradise, and a novel, Still She Haunts Me. She lives in New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

H.G. and Jane Wells


"Between the ages of thirty and forty I devoted a considerable amount of mental energy to the general problem of men and women . . ."—H. G. Wells
AUGUST 5, 1914. A few minutes after midnight as Britain was entering the war, an illegitimate baby was born in a conspicuously anonymous redbrick house on the northern coast. His mother, Rebecca West, whose real name, which nobody used, was Cicily Fairfield, held the sleeping bundle in her arms, while her sister and a friend perched on her bed. The baby's father, H. G. Wells, was one hundred miles away, sitting up late in his llama-wool pajamas, in the second-floor study of his large comfortable house in Essex, putting the finishing touches on an essay for the Daily Chronicle, which he was planning to call "The War That Will End War." He poured himself a cup of tea, which he had brewed himself on the small stove nestled in the fireplace, and nibbled a dry biscuit. His wife, Jane, was asleep in the bedroom, her dark blond hair fanned out against the pillow. He loved his wife, and he loved his young mistress. He loved his ivy-covered Georgian house, Easton Glebe, which was a gracious symbol of how far he had come from his hardscrabble origins. Unlike nearly everyone he knew, Wells was feeling optimistic about the war, exhilarated by the possibilities of the world in flux. Through his window he could see the familiar outline of a fig tree in the darkness.

Wells prided himself on the fact that there had been no deception. Jane knew all about the affair. This was not the first one, and it would not be the last. Jane was his anchor, his foundation, his sanity–there was no question of his living without Jane–but he suffered from a sexual restlessness that he had long ago ceased to resist. This particular manifestation of it had been set in motion in September of 1912, in the drawing room of Easton Glebe. Rebecca West was a rising nineteen-year-old journalist who wrote fierce, witty pieces for the suffragette paper The New Freewoman and the Clarion. H. G. Wells was already a world-famous author with influential friends, a classically pretty wife, and two small sons. At this point, Wells was best known for scientific romances like The Time Machine, but he had recently written a series of scandalous novels examining the relations between the sexes, several of which were banned from circulating libraries, denounced from pulpits, and attacked in newspaper editorials for poisoning the minds of young people with their promiscuous morals. In her role as professional provocateur, Rebecca had just written a taunting review of the latest: "Of course, he is the old maid among novelists; even the sex obsession that lay clotted on Ann Veronica and The New Machiavelli like cold white sauce was merely an old maid's mania . . ." Somehow this critique had amused or intrigued him–who was this young woman?–and he invited her to lunch.

As soon as she walked in, she was overwhelmed by his unlikely magnetism: a small, round, middle-aged man, with extraordinary light blue eyes, thickets of eyebrows, and a mustache, he emanated the energetic confidence of a man highly valued by the world. For his part, Wells admired her wide brow, dark expressive eyes, and "splendid disturbed brain." As always, Rebecca arrived looking bright and disheveled, as if to broadcast that there were other, more pressing things on her mind than grooming; it was perhaps this tendency that inspired Virginia Woolf to write rather meanly: "Rebecca is a cross between a charwoman and gypsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes, very shabby, rather dirty nails, immense vitality, bad taste, suspicion of intellectuals and great intelligence." At a certain point in the afternoon, Wells's wife, Jane, discreetly withdrew, leaving the two writers alone, and was, the young feminist noted, "charming, but a little bit effaced." Their lunch lasted for more than five hours.

The next time Rebecca visited Wells at his London house they found themselves kissing in front of his bookshelves. With her usual boldness, Rebecca appears to have asked him to sleep with her and relieve her of her innocence. In this, she may or may not have been influenced by Wells's infamous young heroine, Ann Veronica, who threw herself at a married man, proclaiming in what now seems like an absurd piece of dialogue: "I want you. I want you to be my lover. I want to give myself to you." In any event, Wells wrote to her shortly afterward: "Dear Rebecca, You're a very compelling person. I suppose I shall have to do what you want me to do." But then, entangled with a long-term mistress, Elizabeth Von Arnim, and fearful of the damage yet more scandal would do to his reputation, he changed his mind. He and Rebecca wrangled back and forth over his decision, until he disappeared on a trip abroad. He had told Rebecca that even friendship between them would be impossible. The abrupt break launched Rebecca into great storms of melodrama. She had a theatrical streak, had in fact trained to be an actress before turning to writing. "You've literally ruined me," Rebecca wrote. "I am burned down to my foundations. I may build myself up again or I may not . . . I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing room in an unnecessary heart attack." Rebecca emerged from the attenuated flirtation so distraught that her mother whisked her off on a restorative tour through Spain and France.

After reading her published accounts of the trip, Wells wrote to her: "You are writing gorgeously again. Please resume being friends." They began to see a little more of each other, and months later, when Wells quarreled with Elizabeth Von Arnim, whom he called "little e," he and Rebecca became lovers. The leisurely affair that might have ensued was cut short by a moment of carelessness, a rushed afternoon encounter in his London flat during which she conceived a child. By both accounts, it would appear to have been an accident, though Rebecca would later write wildly to her son that H. G. wantonly impregnated her "because he wanted the panache of having a child by the infant prodigy of the day." Given Wells's caution in approaching the affair and his fervor for secrecy this seems highly unlikely, but throughout her life Rebecca remained, on the subject of Wells, partial to colorful distortions and interesting slurs. As soon as he heard the news of her pregnancy, Wells's response was to tell his wife immediately. Wells told his wife everything. That was part of their pact. But for all three of them, the wartime baby would be a test of their forward-thinking ideas.

Wells's unorthodox relation to his wife had already become the subject of much public speculation. The prominent literary hostess Ottoline Morrell would later remember discussing it with Bertrand Russell over lunch in her town house on Gower Street, both expressing their disapproval: not at the adultery, which they had engaged in themselves, but at the openness of it. The scandal was Jane Wells's quiet tolerance of her husband's carryings-on. Beatrice Webb, the founder of the Fabian Society, theorized that Jane couldn't criticize Wells's philandering because of the murky origins of her own relationship with him. When Jane met him he had been married to another woman. In the carnivorous, gossipy circles they moved in, accustomed as they were to dissecting character, Jane's reticence, her grace, some might call it, was maddening. "In all this story," the flamboyant lesbian writer Vernon Lee wrote to Wells, "the really interesting person seems to me to be your wife. . . ." And something about her position did seem to arouse curiosity–who was Jane Wells?

This would not be an easy question to answer. For one thing, Jane wasn't really Jane. In an improbably domineering gesture, Wells had renamed his wife, Amy Catherine Wells, "Jane." When Mrs. Wells was younger she had always gone by Catherine, which she preferred to Amy. But Wells wanted to conjure a competent, sensible helpmate, and the proper name for this admirable and upstanding young woman seemed to be Jane. All of their friends called her Jane, and she herself willingly adopted the plain, serviceable name; but what did she think of a man who took creative liberties with fundamental pillars of her identity? And what did it say about that man that all of his fantasies of uxorious harmony and romantic perfection should converge in the name "Jane"?

There is no doubt that, to the world, Jane presented a composed and contented exterior. There are several photographs of her with her fine profile, her wavy, ash-blond hair swept into a voluminous bun, bent over a Remington typewriter as she typed up her husband's manuscripts, looking, in her striped button-down shirt, the epitome of the dignified secretary. In addition, she managed all of his business affairs, shepherding his significant fortune into prudent investments and corresponding with his legion of agents, translators, and editors. At the same time, she was adept at the more traditionally feminine arts. She was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society and kept an extensive journal to improve her gardening technique. She organized amateur theatricals and games of tennis for their weekend guests with great enthusiasm, altogether creating the pleasing and comfortable environment that made it possible for the fussy and sensitive Wells to sit down and do his work. On a deeper level, Jane answered some chord of self-doubt in him in a way that no one else could. She soothed the fits of rage and melancholy that sometimes paralyzed him, and gave him the constancy and peace he needed. When his self-image faltered, she reflected back a confident, glowing version of who he was. "She stuck to me so sturdily," he put it, "that in the end I stuck to myself." She was his ideal compan...

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