It began last Sunday, a warm summer’s evening deep in the English countryside, where the whiff of money mingles with the sweet scent of new-mown hay and no immigrant has ventured since the Norman invasion. The rural quietude was invaded by the sound of a prop-driven aircraft performing an aerobatic display above the fields, trailing smoke to draw the outline of a heart in the clear, dusking sky. It had been commissioned to make a very public statement of one couple’s love for each other on the occasion of their wedding party and it marked the start of a week during which the custom and practice of marriage has dominated my thoughts.
The next evening I caught up with the film Wild Tales (Spoiler Alerts!), a series of short stories, one of which is about a big wedding party at which the bride discovers her husband’s recent infidelity. She reacts immediately and without restraint, causing the guests a good deal of discomfort - or entertainment, depending on their point of view. The havoc she wreaks on the party is considerable but, in confronting her disillusion head-on and at the beginning of the marriage, she may just have salvaged the relationship. In contrast, the next film I saw, 45 Years, depicts the devastating effect on a wife who realises, after 45 years of marriage, that she was second choice to the woman her husband had always loved but had been unable to marry. In the first film there is hope that the marriage might endure because the skeleton is out of the cupboard, in the latter it is too late to make amends: both ask the question - what are peoples’ expectations of marriage?
Why do people get married? For a variety of reasons, I’m sure: one can only hope they know which ones. The contract of marriage was conceived, originally, as a way of keeping possession of property: it was an alliance, arranged so that land and other assets would remain within a defined family structure - a system which was useful for medieval landowners, who ensured that it was tightly underwritten by laws (which they created) and sanctified by their clergy so as to put the fear of God into dissenters. That love played any part in this process is unlikely.
The next film I saw, Gett, depicts a woman locked into a loveless marriage and undertaking a ten-year long struggle in religious courts to persuade her husband to grant her a divorce. The film is agonising to watch and the message is clear: the institution of marriage is fundamental to the maintenance of a strictly prescribed social structure. The wife’s responsibility is to cook and procreate. Those who uphold this system have no interest in allowing individual cases of human misery to undermine it.
All this while I have been reading Colm Toibin’s novel Norah Webster which looks at the plight of a woman widowed in her forties. It describes the way in which she copes with the loss of the husband she loved and how she subsequently cares for the children. Living, as she does, in the rural and very Catholic Ireland of the 1950s she has sympathy and support - as long as she abides by the rules. Having finished it, I picked up a novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Published in 1956, the first chapter introduces us to a newly engaged couple, part of a wealthy London set. The novel is called In the Long Term and, assuming this refers to the marriage, I am very interested to see how it fares.
And this evening I shall be at an actual wedding party where, whatever the hopes and expectations of the bride and groom, I shall be content to feast on the buffet, knock back the booze and wish them well.