Why are we always so fascinated by other people's marriages?
"We flip through magazine articles about celebrity breakups at the dentist's office, or carefully deconstruct the tension between a couple at a dinner party," notes author and cultural commentator Katie Roiphe.
What are we looking for? Some essential knowledge about ourselves? Answers to deeper riddles about life and love? Maybe it's simply that "marriage is perpetually interesting," as Roiphe writes, as "it is the novel that most of us are living in."
But whatever the reason, if there ever was a thinking person's excuse to read about the marriages of others, it's found in Roiphe's intelligent, absorbing Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910 - 1939.
In some ways, Roiphe's book is the sequel to Phyllis Rose's excellent "Parallel Lives." But while Rose studied the marriages of Victorian writers, Roiphe has chosen literary unions formed between 1910 and 1939.
It was an electric time, both heady and messy, vibrant with new ideas. And that's exactly the state of the seven marriages Roiphe observes: heady, messy, and, all too often, doomed by the very bold ideas that spawned them.
Might not monogamy be a form of hypocrisy? they asked. Why not invent a fresher, freer form of union? It was, to borrow a title from one of Mansfield's short stories, an experiment with "marriage à la mode." And so, although each pair Roiphe examines is utterly unique, a common thread of botched idealism runs throughout all their stories.
Essayist and author H.G. Wells and his long-suffering wife Jane tried to live the illusion that his constant infidelities would not bother her as long as they discussed them openly. Short story writer Katherine Mansfield and editor John Middleton Murray played at a responsibility-free union reminiscent of childhood.
Rather than settling for a union with just one partner, Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, set up a household so complex that "at times one needed a chart like the one at the beginning of a Russian novel to keep them all straight."
Socialite and literary groupie Ottoline Morrell (perhaps the inspiration for "Lady Chatterly's Lover") cheated freely on her politician husband but was shattered when he confessed infidelity to her, not unlike lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall, who tortured her faithful partner with her dalliances, only to end up devastated by another who wouldn't commit to her.
Novelist Vera Brittain craved an intensity that no one person could satisfy, and so worked out a "semi-detached marriage" with a husband and a friend.
None of these arrangements brought much satisfaction to any of the participants, and the selfishness involved is often breathtaking. For instance, Roiphe asks, did anybody bother to think about the children brought into these oddly configured unions? (The evidence she cites suggests that most of them did not fare too well.)
But there is wit, warmth, and intelligence in these stories nonetheless. Roiphe skillfully manages not only to illuminate an era and its ideals, but also – through reliance on memoirs and personal correspondence – to create engaging portraits of her complex and often amusing subjects (most of whom knew one other.)
John Middleton Murray was "the kind of sensitive, artistically inclined man who milks the idea of being promising on into his forties." Vanessa Bell, surrounded by "theatrically helpless and artistically fragile people" was "sturdy and magnificent." Ottoline Morrell's world was "all scented candles and moonlight" while Vera Brittain had "the romantic aura of someone afflicted by a mysterious sorrow."
That all these gifted, imaginative people should fail so dramatically in their marital experimentation is as fascinating as it is sad. But their desires were sincere. "They wanted to think their way through the problem of marriage, to impose a new form on the mess of experience," writes Roiphe. But in the end, of course, "the heart would do what it would."
It's a problem our own generation has not worked out yet either. And that's undoubtedly the principal reason that, when it comes to marriage, we all keep on reading.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.