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10 June 2009

Marriage in Trouble Plots


I recently returned to reading Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, which I had started last summer and then put aside (I sometimes hit moments when I’m writing when I just can’t read anything). I was drawn back immediately by the richness of the writing and the sharp emotional details. I was also struck by comparing and contrasting the book with the recent film, which I also liked. The major events are the same, but the emotional arc is quite different (though Kitty Fane does grow and change in both). It’s rather as though someone were to film Secrets of a Lady with the same basic plot but have the story end with Charles and Mel realizing they’d never really known or loved each other but staying together for practicality.

The other the thing The Painted Veil got me to thinking about is one of my favorite literary tropes–marriage in trouble plots. They’ve always fascinated me, long before I started writing about the marital angst of Charles and Mélanie Fraser. That’s why, when I cite influences and inspirations for the Charles & Mélanie series, in addition to the more obvious ones like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Scaramouche, Dorothy Dunnett, and Dorothy Sayers, I mention Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books.

Reading The Painted Veil, I pondered the fascination of this plotline. The intimacy of marriage ups the stakes in the conflict between two people. Percy’s devastation at Marguerite’s seeming lack of trustworthiness is all the greater because she has just become his wife. Betrayal, I think, is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. How much worse is it when that betrayal comes from a spouse? Years of living together also gives characters a knowledge of each other that recent lovers wouldn’t have. In The Real Thing, the hero has a wonderful speech about knowing one’s spouse, in a way that goes far beyond carnal. That knowledge can be used for good or ill. George and Martha know just how to push each other’s buttons. So, for that matter, do Maggie and Brick.

Particularly in an historical setting, marriage makes it difficult for two people to walk away from each other, no matter how poisoned their relationship has grown. When I blogged about this topic on my own website, JMM commented that I admit, I like marriage in trouble plots more in historical settings. The stakes are higher because divorce was harder or impossible. There’s a fascinating tension in two people pretending to be a couple to the outside world, while being estranged when they’re alone. Think of Percy and Marguerite keeping up appearances to the beau monde yet unable to communicate in private, Maggie and Brick maintaining the charade of their marriage (or at least Maggie trying to) in front of his family. Kitty and Walter Fane sharing a bungalow in a cholera-infested town, seen by most as a devoted couple who’ve risked infection so as not to be separated.

On my website, Stephanie commented that I tend to think of “marriage in trouble” plots as falling into two categories:

1) The marriage begins in unpropitious circumstances–a forced alliance, a shotgun wedding–and the couple has to try to make it work.
2) The marriage starts out solid, even loving, and then has to weather a serious crisis.

Kitty and Walter in The Painted Veil fit the first example. The know each other very little (hence much of the tragedy). Ross and Demelza's relationship, in Winston Graham's wonderful Poldark series, begins as the first example and then morphs into the second as they fall in love but also face various crises in their marriage. Dorothy Sayers's Busman's Honeymoon shows the very much in love Peter and Harriet weathering the first crisis in their marriage as they adjust to being a couple. (As Mélanie thinks in Beneath a Silent Moon, "Marriage was a shocking invasion of privacy.")

Lesley brought up a third variation and cited our own Pam: Another variation on the theme is Pam Rosenthal’s ‘The Slightest Provocation’, where they married young, there was bad behaviour on both sides, and a long separation, but with maturity they realise that what draws them together is more important than past mistakes.

RfP added What I love about TSP is exactly what you mentioned–the way Kit and Mary know how to push each other’s buttons. Combined with the flashbacks, Rosenthal convinces me the button-pushing is a sign of intimacy and of something worth salvaging, not a sign of toxicity.

One of the many things I love about The Slightest Provocation is the way the flashbacks are interwoven, so the reader learns about Kit and Mary’s marriage as they reflect back on it. A rich portrait of their marriage emerges.

Taryn wrote that she likes marriage in trouble books because there are so many secrets, hidden hurts, and long history to unwrap and sort through. With any married couple, there’s a past to explore–how they came to be married and why, what they both expected from the marriage, how that expectation compares to the current reality. And history is something I love to explore as a writer, whether it’s historical events or the personal history shared by two people.

Do you like marriage in trouble stories? Why or why not? Any favorite examples to suggest? What do you think makes them work? Writers, what are the particular challenges of writing this type of story? If you've written this type of book, do you find yourself spending more time than usual making notes on the characters' history?

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15 Comments:

Blogger Mary Blayney said...

This is where I must confess that I am an end-reader. I want to know that the couple makes it through the tough times. For me reading novels is an escape and I do not want to become mired in a story that makes me worry about another set of people who are struggling unless I know they will succeed. Which may say something about how real a well done character/story is for me. I remember how devastated I was (much younger) at the end of STRONG POISON (not a marriage in trouble and clearly not a romance!)

I do like the marriage in trouble theme but want my HEA or at least the potential for it.

And Tracy -- I too, at some point, have to stop reading when writing -- however that does not keep me from buying books!

4:49 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Fabulous post, Tracy! Marriages in trouble is a trope I love as well because the stakes are automatically high both internally and externally. Shakespeare was no stranger to them in several of his plots ... whether the couple has to earn love and respect for each other (Petruchio and Kate) or things fall apart in the middle of a marriage (Leontes and Hermione) and only magic, and a bit of faith (perhaps the same thing to some people) can repair it.

5:04 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Mary, I'm an end-reader too. I don't necessarily not read the book if the couple doesn't make it through (I was glued to Anna Karenina as a senior in high school, speaking of both a troubled marriage and a tragic love affair), but I like to know what I'm getting into.

Did you read the rest of the Peter & Harriet books after "Strong Poison"? I actually read "Have His Carcase" first and then "Busman's Honeymoon" so by the time I read "Strong Poison" I knew they ended up together (and actually I knew that from talking to my mom before I read any of the books :-).

10:16 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, that's a great way of putting it. The stakes are higher both externally because the marriage is a publicly acknowledged relationship (which rather goes to why marriage equality for all is so important), difficult to end. Particularly in an historical setting where it may be close to impossible to end or where ending it may destroy careers, social position, prospects of future marriage, separate parents (usually mothers) from children. And of course the stakes are higher internally because of the emotional history the characters share and the investment they have in each other. As you say, Shakespeare does marriages in trouble with his usual keen psychological insight. Both ones where the characters work through their problems as in the examples you cite, and ones where they don't, such as "Othello."

10:23 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I really like them in the hands of the right writer. The conflict is ready built and deadly serious.

And Tracy -- I too, at some point, have to stop reading when writing -- however that does not keep me from buying books!


Me too. I've been reading like crazy the last few months, but haven't really been more than noodling around on my WIP (I like to think of it as letting the story steep in my brain rather than just being lazy).

10:44 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

"The conflict is ready built and deadly serious."

That's an excellent point, Kalen. The conflict is almost bound to start off more intense than the conflict between two people who are meeting for the first time. And you jump past the formality of the getting-to-know-each other phase, particularly in an historical setting (especially 18th/19th century Britain) where it's difficult for an unmarried man and woman to be even be along together. Also, there's the intimacy of the fact that they've already slept together (well probably, depending on the nature of the marriage) or at least that the world around the assumes they have.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Mary says she's an end-reader who wants to know that the couple makes it through the tough times.

Which is why it's a rule of romance fiction to promise that. And why, in The Slightest Provocation I reveled in allowing Mary and Kit to push each other's buttons so fiercely -- because the romance safety net was there.

And also (as that sharp reader and blogger RfP had it) because the effectiveness of their emotional button-pushing was another side of their intimacy -- their first vicious argument following hard upon a sex scene, wherein I hope I'd shown how skillfully they were able to push each other's physical buttons. Now I wanted to create the underside of all that deep shared knowledge.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

It's odd, Pam, while I love happy endings, as I've blogged about in the past I often find happy endings more satisfying when the safety net isn't there. I was thinking about that last night and trying to think if I could/would want to write a book that didn't have a happy ending for the central characters. Still not sure. (Speaking of happy endings, or the lack of them, I'm off to La Traviata this afternoon).

RfP had a great point about emotional button-pushing being another side of Mary and Kit's intimacy. You have to know someone really well to be able to push those buttons to such devastating effect. That, as I mentioned in the discussion on my website, is also true of George and Martah in "Virginia Woolf."

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Maryan Wherry said...

It seems that what you're talking around the real issue. I mean, what separates "trouble in marriage" from parental or familial conflicts--which are much less, ah, selective than marriage? Historically speaking, regardless of the difficulty of divorce, permanent separation or confinement were relatively easy.

And in the US, marriage is only a civil contract (legally and constitutionally). So, is it the religious connections that make the historical marriages more challenging (higher stakes)? Perhaps the "trouble in marriage" is our conception and definition of marriage itself?

12:34 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I agree, Maryann, parental, sibling, and other familial conflicts are also very rich, and in many cases it's even harder for the people involved to disentangle themselves from a relationship.

I was thinking in the blog--and I should have stated this more specifically--of stories about troubled marriages versus stories about romantic relationships between couples who aren't married and don't know each other at the start of the story. Married couples share baggage and a history (the same is true of ex-lovers, another storyline I'm fond of). While separation was relatively easily achieved through much of history for some couples, in other cases economics made it difficult (separation requires the funds to maintain two separate households) and children complicated the situation (a divorced women in the Regency almost invariably lost custody of her children). Even today, when divorce is relatively simple, my divorced friends with children say they will always have some sort of relationship with their ex-spouse because of they share the children.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

p.s.

Sorry, Maryan, for mistyping your name! And that should have been "because they share" not "because of they share" in the last line (need to proofread better before I post...)

1:13 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I was thinking in the blog--and I should have stated this more specifically--of stories about troubled marriages versus stories about romantic relationships between couples who aren't married and don't know each other at the start of the story.

All sorts of fascinating possibilities with historicals, as others have mentioned. My WIP is about a couple with no chemistry at all at their initial meeting who have to get married (reputation, honor, all those great plot triggers--we are so lucky to have them). I'm also exploring the dichotomy of procreational vs. recreational sex.

Interesting stuff.

Of course if you were lower class with no land/inheritance issues things were infinitely simpler--or not so simple if you were upwardly mobile. I'm thinking of The Mayor of Casterbridge. by Thomas Hardy.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Maryan Wherry said...

". . .stories about troubled marriages versus stories about romantic relationships. . ."

. . . have the potential of being two different things (or plotlines). My point is that we bandy about the word "marriage" without having a clear concept of exactly what it is or what it means. That ambiguity becomes evident (if that's not a contradiction in terms) in the current climate regarding gay marriage and civil unions.

As you know, marriage in a historical sense, was about economics, property, power and perhaps amity--all civil issues. Odd, then, that permission for marriage was granted by the Church. So the question rises: is marriage a civil contract or is it a moral commitment?

It seems to me that part of the "trouble in marriage" is that very lack of definition of the institution itself. If the real interest is trust--or lack thereof--and betrayal, then any enforced and constrained relationship would suffice, no?

6:04 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Janet, your WIP sounds fascinating! And yes, I agree we are *so* lucky to have the plot triggers of the social complications surrounding marriage.

Hardy definitely shows the economic and emotional complications of marriage for those attempting to be upwardly mobile. "Jude the Obscure" is another good example.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's a wonderful point, Maryan--thank you for elucidating (I can be a bit slow at times :-). Totally agree that people's differing definitions of marriage and the fact that historically it's been both a civil contract and a religiously-sanctioned ceremony have a lot to do with the same sex marriage debate (in which debate it's clear that "marriage" has tremendous power simply as a word).

I also think that a lot of the issues one finds in troubled marriages in historically-set literature come out of the fact that the definition of marriage has constantly changed and evolved, so that each marriage partner might define it differently. The definition was perhaps particularly in flux in the early 19th century when romantic love was beginning to be seen more as a component of marriage. So that what one partner might think of as an economic/dynastic contract another might view as a romantic union. Which could lead to vastly differing expectations about a number of things, including fidelity.

9:42 PM  

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