Monday, July 16, 2007

Portrait Of A Marriage

Just yesterday, Danielle at A Work In Progress posted a blog about a novel called The Edwardians, written by Vita Sackville-West.
Although I’ve never read any of Vita’s novels, the posting reminded me of an excellent biography of the unconventional marriage of Vita, to Harold Nicolson. I read it several years ago.
Written as a sort of posthumous confession, Portrait Of A Marriage is the true story of a forty-nine year marriage that survived constant bouts of reciprocal infidelity.
To throw another stick into the blaze, both Vita and Harold loved people of their own sex, and yet their marriage not only survived these bouts of unorthodoxy, sexual incompatibility, and long absences, but became stronger and finer as a result.
As stated in the Foreword, "each came to give the other full liberty without inquiry or reproach. Honour was rooted in dishonour. Their marriage succeeded because each found permanent and undiluted happiness only in the company of the other. If their marriage is seen as a harbour, their love-affairs were mere ports-of-call. It was to the harbour that each returned; it was there that both were based."
Interesting, to say the least!

The story is told in five parts; two by the protagonist Vita Sackville-West, and three by her son, Nigel Nicolson.
After his mother's death in 1962, Nigel discovered among her personal items a travel bag containing a large notebook. It was a manuscript, an autobiography written by his mother when she was 28 years old.
For a decade Nigel held on to this manuscript, and in 1973 (his father having passed away in 1968) it was published here in Portrait Of A Marriage.
Parts 1 and 3 consist of Vita's autobiography verbatim; parts 2 and 4 are Nigel's commentary, each prefaced by a very useful chronological timeline.
Part 5 summarizes the remaining years of the marriage, showing how they "made out of a non-marriage a marriage which succeeded beyond their dreams."
The basis of this certainly unconventional marriage was what they called a "common sense of values." Total frankness.
There were certain things that were wrong absolutely, and as long as they agreed on what those things were, it did not matter much if in other ways they behaved outrageously. For them, marriage as an institution was actually "unnatural" and only tolerable for people of strong character and independent minds if it were regarded as a lifetime association between intimate friends.
Understood and experienced as such, a successful marriage then became "the greatest of human benefits" and therefore, husband and wife should strive hard to achieve it! "Each must be subtle enough to mould their characters and behaviour to fit the other's, facet to facet, convex to concave. The husband must develop the feminine side of his nature, the wife her masculine side. He must cultivate the qualities of sympathy and intuition; she those of detachment, reason, and decision. He must respond to tears; she must not miss trains."

Of course there will be readers who feel that these two developed these other sides of their "nature" to an extreme perhaps?
Detractors however, should be sure to validate their criticism with a marriage of 50 years plus... for here was one that lasted 49, and was inexorably defeated only by physical death itself.
Truly bizarre? Yes indeed.
These two individuals were so extraordinary and UNIQUE that I think it important to note that their story should not be viewed as a "how-should-we" story, but rather, a "how-did-they" story. In this, it is magnificent as it stands.

The author did a tremendous editorial job of putting it all together. Anyone interested in V. Sackville-West's writing [as I am] will find this work to be a wonderful whetting stone. As I did.
A great read.
Check out Danielle’s blog on The Edwardians.



danielle said...

I'm very curious about this book now and am going to see if my (work) library has it. 49 years, I think, is really an amazingly long time to be married. And marriage is incredibly difficult. I'm really almost inclined to agree that marriage is sort of an unnatural state--I do think that a successful marriage is between independent individuals who can be friends. Marriages are really intimate--not just the physical stuff--so if it worked for them the way they managed it, why not--it was definitely only their own business. I'm very curious about what Nigel has to say about it as their son. Thanks for the post!

Caroline said...

Hi, Cipriano! I thought I'd better come over here to continue the conversation about this book, rather than using Danielle's blog, and lo and behold, you are writing about the book, too! It does sound really interesting - I too will be checking my library. As for the movie, would you believe I searched on Amazon UK under the title of the book, not being sure if that was also the movie title, and there it was, a region 1 DVD, starring Janet McTeer (I had remembered it was Janet someone, but I'm glad it was so easy to find!). Now I'm not recommending that you rush out and buy it - as I said, it was 16 years ago that I saw it, so I can't say whether it's any good, but I did enjoy it at the time - I certainly found it memorable, apparently (or what passes for memory in my brain!). Thanks for reminding me of it - now I'm off to look for the book!

Merisi said...

49 years sound impressive.
And then, it very much depends on how you define what a marriage is. If you include everybody and his or her brother, and the other partner either goes along with it or does the same and none of these other partners wants to get into a state of marriage, then it doesn't seem that hard to stay "married".
Without having read more about these two people, I would say their "marriage" lasted because somehow they didn't care to have other relationships meaningful enough to make it an esclusive one between two people.

Bybee said...

I remember reading this book and being struck by the same quotes you have in your review. The description of how marriage can work dazzled me.

cipriano said...

Hey all... I am glad to have raised such a little dust-storm over this book. It truly is worthwhile reading. In all seriousness, it is sort of stranger-then-fiction, in a page-turning sort of way.
Thank you for reading my posting on it!
-- Cip

stefanie said...

Ah yes, it's a wonderful book isn't it? Vita and Harold were fascinating people and their marriage even m ore so. How they could stay married and stay in love with all their side realtionships I'll never understand. Theirs was definitely a marriage of convenience but yet it was more than that, they genuinely cared for each other.