The daughter of our dear friends got married yesterday. To Louise and James, therefore, we NorthernReaders send every possible ounce of love and congratulations and welcome to the wonderful and slightly strange world of being married. What books should we give you?
The truth is that poets, playwrights and novelists get more inspiration from the unmarried state which you have just left. As everyone will point out to you, Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding in the air and his tragedies begin shortly afterwards. Don’t be put off: think of Lord and Lady Macbeth and General and Mrs Othello as helpful what-not-to-do guides and you’ll be fine. And stick like glue to every wise word of Shakespeare’s sonnet. If you minds are as one, and open to each other, yours will be the best and happiest of marriages.
The problem with happy marriages is that they do not provide useful material for fiction, because stories, unlike people, thrive on conflict. Good marriages can be found in books, but – just as in what we laughingly call real life – you may need to pick and choose to select the aspects you would like to copy. Nick and Nora Charles, for example – the couple at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man: happy, certainly; devoted, even – but I’m not sure that all that alcohol is a very helpful ingredient in our recipe for a long and contented marriage (Asta, on the other hand, is a good reminder that dogs and marriages go together very well indeed). But detective fiction, strangely, does provide us with some well-matched couples. Not Poirot, obviously, nor Miss Marple, although Agatha Christie did have a married pair of detectives, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. But Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey embody Shakespeare’s invaluable advice to be a marriage of true minds. We shall give our newly-married couple, not only Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon,.but also the sequels developed by Jill Paton Walsh. We can add Ngaio Marsh’s really rather nice Roderick Alleyn and his splendid wife Troy. Best of all are Commissario Guido Brunetti and his clever academic wife, Paola, in Donna Leon’s absorbing series of detective novels set in Venice. It is true that Paola is a fabulous cook, but, if you are not, do not despair that a great marriage will elude you: the Brunetti household is forged by love, patience, understanding, a shared sense of humour and – hurray – books. The couple that reads together, stays together.
Sticking together through the tough bits might be a useful role model, so hats off to Mother in The Railway Children who quite properly never doubts her husband’s innocence for a second. Married couples in children’s books almost inevitably – and appropriately – appear as parents rather than lovers, but there are some that stand out as couples Sadly, Mr and Mrs Bear, parents of Rupert, make it very clear where he gets his outstanding dullness from. Much more enjoyably, Mr and Mrs Pig of Evening Out fame, although a bit slapdash in their choice of baby-sitter (and which cabin-fevered parent wouldn’t joyfully accept any offer of child-care?), are clearly fond of each other and can still face the idea of an evening in each other’s company with equanimity. Richmal Crompton’s Mr and Mrs Brown stoically present a united front in the face of the adversity which is their youngest child, William. There is, incidentally, an emerging trend for weddings to include readings from children’s books – the more toe-curlingly and vapidly sugary the better. I suspect that the reason for this is straightforward and two-fold: first, because, consciously or not, the happy couple are thinking about children, and secondly because under the strain of arranging a wedding, which nowadays has to be of a pomp and splendour formerly restricted to the court at Versailles, the bride has lost her marbles and the groom is too afraid to put his foot down. I may, of course, be wrong
Let us turn to the poets for help and guidance. Once again, we hit the problem that it is far more fun to write about the awful agonies of unrequited love and broken romance than the glorious mundanities of lasting happiness, but here are two who step up to the mark. Although Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion is, strictly speaking, ineligible for our bookshelf of marriage guidance because it speaks only of the wedding day itself, it is definitely having a place for its very clear standard-setting on how to praise your wife. Read it, chaps, and take notes. You will never fall far out of favour with your wife as the years roll by if you can keep up this level of admiration. Pay special attention to his celebration of her intelligence, charm, kindness and wit. Practise in the car on the way home if necessary.
Our second teacher is of course the utterly wonderful John Donne. Read ‘The Anniversary’. If you don’t feel like that, don’t marry. There we are. Simple really.
Now is not the time to indulge the NorthernReader’s sense of humour by presenting our happy couple with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Julian Barnes’ Before She Met Me. We could give them Wodehouse, though. Not Bingo Little’s marriage to the popular novelist Rosie M Banks, perhaps, and the fireplace with ‘Two Lovebirds Built This Nest’ – although there is something rather marvellous about such squirm-making horror – but Aunt Dahlia and Uncle Tom rub along together pretty well through umpteen years of marriage and despite the depradations of her nephew Bertie. Best of all, let’s make sure that all newly-married couples embark upon their life together with the complete works of Jane Austen tucked into their trousseaux. Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley, Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars: they are all highly unusual romantic couples, because we can imagine them settling into long contented marriages (for contrast, try picturing Romeo and Juliet’s silver wedding anniversary. You see? It was never going to work). And Jane Bennett, of course – like our own dear Louise – has the great good sense to marry a man from the North of England. Good on you, pet