Monday, September 15, 2008

Review: Uncommon Arrangements

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

Katie Roiphe, daughter of first-generation feminist Anne Roiphe, vaulted her way to a semi-permanent spot on the list of America’s intellectuals with her first book, The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism On Campus, which was simultaneously hailed and reviled for its unapologetic and polarising subject matter – sexual politics among young adults. Heralded initially as the “first intellectual of her generation,” later relegated to simply being a part of the post-Reagan young Conservative movement, and then grudgingly accepted back into the ranks of post-feminist writers who felt they owed little to their antecedents, Roiphe the younger has made a successful career out of toeing the line between her mother’s more overt feminism and a peculiar kind of logical individualism.

Uncommon Arrangements, too, is a boundary book, and delves into the grey area between popular literature, historical biography and academic criticism, giving Roiphe the chance to revel in the ‘soft’ genre of literary biography. The book focuses on the marriages, long-term affairs and friendships that linked a group of writers active between 1910 and the beginning of the second world war, featuring well-known (and often-referenced) pairs such as Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, but also stretches to cover couples such as H.G. and Jane Wells, as well as H.G.’s mistress, Rebecca West.

In analysing these lives, Roiphe seems completely at home, safe with the hard-copy evidence of piles of literary detritus, and a comfortable prose style possible only when writing about deceased subjects. With such material, then, Roiphe recovers from the jarringly callow observations to which she was prone in her earlier work, although the few that still slip through likely say more about the author than she would like readers to take from the book. She approves wholeheartedly, for example, of the understanding letter Jane Wells wrote to her husband after he walked out on her and their young son, in which the long-suffering Jane blames herself for being too possessive, and not understanding her husband’s needs. Roiphe is harsher on H.G.’s mistress, Rebecca West, who simply “wanted someone to fuss over her.”

There’s an odd double standard throughout Roiphe’s editorialising – in the narrative she constructs, her subjects manage to defend the traditions of marriage at the same time as they infer the social benefits of extramarital affairs. Reconciling this is no easy matter. The book keeps coming back to the idea that strong (and fiercely intellectual) feminists can still find an appeal in brutish masculinity, just as Roiphe comes back to her favourite themes – accountability and personal responsibility, sometimes in the face of all logic. In her steadfast refusal to cast women as victims, it seems that Roiphe has internalised the male gaze in her writing, while simultaneously professing to agree with the logic of feminism. And all of this bleeds through the literary value of Uncommon Arrangements.

New Zealand audiences familiar with the cottage industry C.K. Stead has built up around Katherine Mansfield will find little new information, although Roiphe contextualises extremely well, and Uncommon Arrangements provides a grounding in the complex public and private relationships of writers around the same period as Mansfield. Roiphe gradually builds up a picture of what she sees as the (tempting and attractive) flaws and (safe) inhibitions of the Victorian age. Marriage, she says, was a socially acceptable convenience that enables a queer sort of freedom in the newlyweds, the freedom that can come only after they have accepted the constraints of society. The tie that binds can also loosen, it seems.

It may appear so, but Uncommon Arrangements isn’t a dry history of married life – rather, it’s a very involved account of several intertwining relationships, as seen through the eyes of an equally involved writer. The power dynamics between couples clearly fascinate this author, and investing her time into scholarship rather than polemic allows for a much more balanced book than her previous efforts, if one that is still an introduction to the literary letters scene.

To revert to a more Victorian parlance, Uncommon Arrangements acts as A Young Academic’s Primer: a point of departure for further study, rather than a destination in itself. Those following the overarching Roiphe story – how the author revises and reiterates her idiosyncratic mindset over the course of writing her different books – will, however, read much of interest into the book.

This article was first published in Critic.

No comments: