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Friday, 19 February 2010

Uncommon Arrangements

Katie Roiphe's Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages in Literary London - 1910-1939, makes fascinating reading. Some of the marriages are relatively well known - Vanessa and Clive Bell for example - others are less famous - Elizabeth Von Arnim and John Francis Russell. What I found most intriguing was the way all seven of the couples knew each other and were frequently former or future lovers. All were eccentric characters - most notably Radclyffe Hall who would have been ostracised by most sections of society at the time though she was accepted by literary London.

Anyone who thinks marriage has only been questioned in recent years needs to read this book to see how it was being interpreted a century ago. H G Wells had many mistresses including - most notably - Rebecca West. Katharine Mansfield and Vera Brittain were both more interested in their work than their husbands and lived 'semi-detached' married lives. Lovers were tolerated or openly encouraged in all of the marriages. Vanessa and Clive Bell living with Vanessa's lover Duncan Grant. Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall lived openly together as lesbian lovers. Many of the women felt conventional marriage to be too claustrophobic and imposed their own interpretation on their own with or without their husband's agreement.

The book is well written with a comprehensive bibliography and index. My only complaint was that when people bought or rented houses the locations are frequently omitted. Couples lived in London - yes but where in London - it's a big place. It is not sufficient to say someone moved to a house on the South Coast - it is hundreds of miles long. I found I wanted to scream 'Yes but where?' at the author on several occasions. I did enjoy reading it though in spite of this, relatively minor, point.

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