The Enduring Appeal Of The Badly Married Lady

Many of the best-loved works of western literature feature catastrophically unhappy marriages — and, more specifically, women who marry — or almost marry — the wrong man. Why do we love reading about badly-married ladies?

The Guardian's Victoria Beale takes us on a tour of the worst literary marriages, touching on Charles and Emma Bovary and Edward Albee's George and Martha before hitting the jackpot: Austen. Oh, and Henry James. She writes,

The most tragic, claustrophobic depictions of unhappy marriage in English literature undoubtedly have to come from a time before divorce was legally or socially an option. In James's Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer's suffering once she realises she's married a miserly sociopath is horribly compounded by the knowledge that, as a woman in the late 19th century, she has messed up the most important decision of her life, and cannot go back on it. Bad marriages are just as depressing, if not more so, in Jane Austen's novels, precisely because so little time is given to discussing them. If the reader paused to consider what Lydia's marriages to Wickham or Charlotte Lucas's marriage to Mr Collins are actually like they might be less inclined to celebrate the inescapable march towards matrimony of the other characters.

I've always found Austen's novels slightly scary for this reason. Her women, who are usually bright and fascinating, if sometimes headstrong or misguided, often have no options but to marry or live in penury. And they run the very serious risk of marrying someone awful and having a terrible life from which there's no escape. I never understand people who dismiss Austen as superficial or boring — especially in Pride and Prejudice, the stakes are incredibly high.

Isabel Archer is independently wealthy, so she doesn't face quite the same pressures, but she still marries a bad man at a time when that decision has even more serious consequences than it would today. My dad and I were talking about Portrait of a Lady once when he mused, "why is so much great literature about young women making really bad choices?" I've railed in the past about our cultural obsession with women's missteps, but I think he's right. And I think the answer to his question comes down, again, to stakes. For much of history, women have had much less freedom than men — and often, literature shows us their efforts to use what little freedom they have set up decent lives for themselves. But often they don't have a lot of chances, and so watching them make the decisions that will determine their futures can be a nail-biting affair.

Of course, nail-biting makes for great literature but shitty life, and it's possible to learn the wrong lesson from these portraits of badly-married ladies. It's true that women still face graver consequences for some decisions than men do (men, for instance, don't get pregnant). And obviously we're all capable of doing things we'll later greatly regret. But we shouldn't take from Austen or James the idea that a society that punishes women disproportionately for their mistakes is good or just or even inevitable. That these punishments have grown less over time (a woman who's had a child out of wedlock, for instance, is no longer a social pariah) is a testament to the fact that working against them matters, and that we can one day arrive at a place where women are free to fuck up just as badly as men and suffer no more and no less for it. This won't bring an end to bad marriages, but it will put a stop to the message — increasingly anachronistic but still all too popular — that women must run their love lives perfectly or they'll be miserable forever.

The Joy Of Unhappy Marriage Literature [Guardian]