Books about marriage, like the battered old institution itself, come in and out of fashion with writers, readers and politicians, but never quite die away. These two, from the latest crop, are by women in early middle age, both experienced journalists with several books behind them; but Elizabeth Gilbert, a chirpy American describing herself as ‘a cross between a golden retriever and a barnacle’, is flamboyantly personal and unacademic, while the quietly British Kate Figes is a careful, responsible researcher and interviewer who keeps her own marital history to the margins. All the more surprising, then, to find that their attitudes to marriage have a certain amount in common.
Gilbert, whose previous writings, she tells us, have concentrated on men and once involved cropped hair and a birdseed-stuffed condom down her trousers, wrote her book under duress. Having just finished writing Eat, Pray, Love, the story of her journey of self-discovery after a messy divorce (published in 2006, and a huge international bestseller, with a movie in the works, starring Julia Roberts), she found her romance with her Brazilian lover abruptly derailed by the U. S. Department of Homeland Security, which informed them as they tried to return after a trip that he would not be allowed into the country with her again unless they got married.
This book is both the story of their ‘exile’, as they travelled the world while the matter was sorted out, and her account of how she overcame her own fears and misgivings about once again risking matrimony. Despite her disclaimers, the reader suspects, too, that having hit the jackpot with one book about a journey around the world and herself, the prospect of a repeat was hard for her and her publishers to resist.
In order to deal with her aversion to marriage, Gilbert decided to research the history of the institution through reading and travel. Thus, while interviewing elderly matriarchs in assorted Far Eastern societies very different from her own, she trawled the internet and summoned books by historians and sociologists, apparently pretty much at random. As a working method, it is less artless than it seems; a session with the women of the Hmong tribe in Vietnam, for whom marriage is nothing to do with personal fufillment, leads on to a shrewd analysis of the frightening weight of expectation Westerners place on romantic love, and a chance observation of a young monk reading a passionate email gives her the chance to reflect on the power and the transience of erotic obsession.
She does not go in for notes and references, but among the authorities she thanks and cites are several also relied upon by the more scholarly and scrupulous Kate Figes, notably the American historian Stephanie Koontz, and her potted history of marriage, from its patchy, informal beginnings, through the suspicions of the early Christian church to its oppressive Victorian heyday is sensible enough.
On the whole, to her slight surprise and ours, she works her way towards an appreciation of marriage as a source of comfort and stability, especially for children, while acknowledging herself to be a determined member of the ‘Auntie Corps’ rather than the ‘Mommy Brigade’, who has never wanted a child herself. But what is a distinct surprise is to find, towards the end of her account, that it was a book by a British writer that finally liberated her from feeling that by marrying she would be re-entering a conventional trap.
This was The Subversive Family (1982), by Ferdinand Mount, former political editor of The Spectator, described by Gilbert as ‘a curious looking academic work’ by ‘a conservative columnist’ that she would never have ordered had she known who he was from the start. However, the Mount thesis, that marriage protects and preserves families, and individuals’ determination to resist state interference and control, came as a huge relief, and in the nick of time. She is now happily married.
The Subversive Family does not, however, feature in Kate Figes’ 28 pages of notes and bibliography. After Gilbert’s lively, informal, romantic odyssey — and she does make her story entertaining, and the research palatable — it would be easy to dismiss Figes as stodgy and laboured, as she weaves together her 120 interviews with assorted couples, young and old, straight and gay, happy and unhappy, against a well-organised historical and sociological background. But although her book is indeed more serious, it is also more thoughtful, humane and authoritative. While the state of marriage as a conventional ceremonial or legal arrangement does not interest her much, she is thoroughly and hearteningly in favour of quasi-marital arrangements, not least as a source of security for children and comfort in old age. ‘You couldn’t devise’, she writes, ‘a more comprehensive and mutually advantageous state of being’. She deserves, but is unlikely to get, as many readers as Gilbert.