UNCOMMON ARRANGEMENTS: SEVEN PORTRAITS OF MARRIED LIFE IN LONDON LITERARY CIRCLES, 1910–1939
By Katie Roiphe
The Dial Press, $26, 344 pages
Within a certain social circle—O.K., mine—mention of the name Katie Roiphe inspires exasperated eye rolls, forehead slaps, even hisses. Ms. Roiphe is the author, most famously, of The Morning After (1993), which suggested that it was overzealous, perhaps even hysterical, of young women to call unpleasant sexual encounters with gentlemen of their acquaintance “date rape.” (Everyone, step away from the keg!) The book was excerpted at length in The New York Times Magazine, illustrated by a large picture of Ms. Roiphe herself on the cover, all burnished Pre-Raphaelite curls and penetrating gaze. She was 25.
In the years since that splashy (some might say ghastly) debut, Katie Roiphe has written a couple more books, including a novel; picked up a Ph.D. from Princeton and—more eye rolls—landed the late critic Ellen Willis’ old job teaching cultural reporting at N.Y.U. She also got married, had a daughter, and split up with her husband. Recently the Pre-Raphaelite curls and penetrating gaze were showcased again, in New York magazine, where photographs of Ms. Roiphe trying on shoes and crossing the street in a trench coat—designer purse on one arm, adorable toddler on the other—accompanied a personal essay about how divorce, far from enervating her, had actually put the zing back in her step. This time she elicited actual gasps. But it wasn’t the writing—thick with intimate details of her rich material and social life, stiffened with more of the usual Roiphe don’t-be-a-whiner shtick—so much as those pictures. The element of glossy, unabashed self-advertisement.
It turns out Ms. Roiphe had something else to sell besides her nervy Jill Clayburgh–style single motherhood: her new book, Uncommon Arrangements.
Katie haters will be sorry to hear that it’s very absorbing. The author has done something constructive, for a change, with her contempt for the contemporary age’s lily-livered female psyche: She’s turned her attention to the past, specifically to the innards, the “oily mechanism,” of seven unconventional literary marriages in Edwardian England. In doing so, she’s produced a tidy little piece of scholarship that’s definitely preferable to any smug sexual-politics punditry.
Her own marital troubles may have influenced her choice of topic—“writing,” as Ms. Roiphe intones in a postscript, “is a therapeutic act”—but mercifully she absents herself from the main body of the text. Instead of the obtrusive first person, we get the academic, slightly prissy “One wonders …. ” We’re not asked to admire Ms. Roiphe’s new “honey-colored, wide-planked floorboards” (thank you, New York)—we’re ushered instead into the airy drawing rooms and shady gardens of a charmed period in British letters whose major figures included Rebecca West, H.G. Wells, Radclyffe Hall, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.
Suddenly Ms. Roiphe has become a sort of highbrow Architectural Digest correspondent, scrupulously noting the domestic detail of each curious ménage: the plum soup served at the dinner party where Mansfield met the weak-willed John Middleton Murry; the “patched, vibrant fabrics” favored by Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell; the scarlet walls and gilt moldings of frustrated saloniste Ottoline Morrell (whose affair with her gardener possibly inspired D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover).
UNCOMMON ARRANGEMENTS IS COLORFUL, fragrant, aural—rich with the clink of teacups and the “languid, ineffectual strokes” as Murry paints a cottage (“Get it done,” growls house guest Lawrence. Can you imagine?). It’s kind of like an Edward Gorey cartoon come to life.
People are forever keeling over with fatal cerebral hemorrhages or more peculiar ailments (at one point, Radclyffe Hall’s eyelashes begin to grow inward); staying up all night writing feverishly; or getting put on the stand for cross-examination, all of which infuses the narrative with a certain drama. They’re an eccentric, idealistic bunch, often unfaithful to their main squeezes—Ms. Roiphe sees something “heroic” in these trespasses—often indifferent toward their children, and sometimes deliciously catty. (H.G. Wells mocks writer Elizabeth Von Arnim for starting a trend of English women “smirking coyly about their gardens as if they were having a remarkably satisfying affair with their delphiniums.”)
Modeled after Lytton Strachey’s group biography Eminent Victorians and composed the old-fashioned way, after hours spent leafing through correspondence and diaries, the portraits are all thorough, but not equally satisfying. (The account of the consumptive Mansfield’s childish and fraught relationship is riveting; less so that of the hostess and muse Morrell, whose talents were mostly ephemeral.) Still, by hopping into her time-travel machine, Katie Roiphe manages to hoist herself above modern debates about marriage—“dreary,” she calls them, citing the popular anthology The Bitch in the House—while simultaneously taking part.
Alexandra Jacobs is editor at large at The Observer.