It’s hard to find a good marriage story – at least in fiction, if not in life. This notion still has the power to surprise me, because in my experience as a reader and observer of life, people are drawn to depictions of successful relationships, even when they suspect they are problematic to a greater degree of plausibility.
As a fiction writer, I’ve found that a novel can deal equally well with the troubles that arise in the calmest of lives and the illusory peace sought in the most turbulent. Taken from the right angle, the portrait of a happy marriage can shed light not only on individual human flourishing but also on issues of justice, peace and prosperity within society.
A 1923 novel by Sheila Kaye-Smith. Near the Alard house, achieves all these goals at once. The broad arc of her story spans at least four disastrous marriages, but nonetheless provides a compelling account of potential satisfaction—albeit one that entails certain sacrifices.
The novel declared Kaye-Smith a bestseller. Available now from CUA Press as part of a series calling attention to the underappreciated works of women in the 20th-century Catholic literary revival, it traces the author’s conversion to Catholicism in 1929 as well as her happy marriage in 1924 to an Anglican priest, who would later give up his ministry as would join her in crossing the Tiber. The novel’s title may seem to give it away—that rare case where judging a book by its cover might be justified. Yet, as with many well-told stories, its resonance lies not in knowing what happens on the last page, but in discovering how it happens and why.
The setting is England just after the First World War, where like many other landowners, the Alard family is struggling to hold on to their sprawling estate. (To say they won’t be able to do this hardly counts as a spoiler.) Although solutions are offered to Sir John, the paterfamilias, he refuses to compromise. The family eats poorly prepared food from their china and silverware, dresses in formal clothes, and endures each other’s ironic jabs and witticisms, even though its members are unable – or unwilling – to raise the funds to repair the dilapidated farms and houses of their tenants.
Some of Sir John’s grown children accept the contradictions of this status quo and they do everything in their power to maintain it. Others are understandably appalled. Among his supporters are Doris, a spinster with a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome; Maria, abandoned by her husband; George, an Anglican priest who tries to balance the “burden” of his family with the demands of the Gospel; and Peter, the heir, is desperate to preserve what he considers “things that last” – the land, buildings and traditions of Alard, as witnessed by generations of ancestors in the family crypt.
Contrasted are Gervase, a younger brother successful in business, and Jenny, a younger sister who has fallen in love with a well-to-do farmer, Ben Godfrey. Gervase lacks the elite education of his older brothers; Jenny was similarly neglected by her preoccupied parents and older siblings. Both – Jenny through her out-of-class marriage, Gervase on an even more unexpected path – challenge Alard’s superficial assumptions about the meaning of honor, custom and stability. Their questions about convention, especially about its standards of social and relational behavior, are characteristic of modernity even though they themselves search for sources of deeper tradition in their way of life.
As characters who defy Victorian convention, Gervase and Jenny most deeply respect the truths at the heart of Kaye-Smith’s vision of the English tradition, a tradition which, she implicitly argues, is deeply attuned to Catholic understandings of human equality and equal dignity across all lines of class and gender, for unlike the rigidly hierarchical and often devaluing conventions of Victorian socioeconomic stratification.
Those of the characters who cling to the outer forms of those conventions, rather than the inner spirit of the deeper tradition, are portrayed as alienated and fragmented, with tragic consequences. The worst fate of the novel falls on Peter, who, because of the Alard estate, refuses to marry Stella, a poorer woman whom he really loves, in favor of a more favorable acquaintance. Rich, beautiful, sophisticated and clever, Peter’s wife, Vera, takes the traditions of her secular-Jewish family as a measure of right thinking and reacts to Peter’s country manner with a mixture of indulgent astonishment and gentle disdain.
Peter’s marriage to Vera is faithful and fruitful, and as such – as her name suggests – it is a real marriage, despite the conventional pragmatism. However, this is a mistake. Peter never breaks cleanly with Stella, never quite loosens his grip on her. In short, “his heart is not in” his marriage: Kaye-Smith exploits the truth behind this cliché to expose the rock in the ground that prevents Peter’s commitment to Vera from taking root.
Their marriage seems to be failing less because of what Kaye-Smith would call the “cult difference” between the two spouses than because of their immersion in worldly concerns. Both Peter and Vera are disconnected from their own and each other’s inner lives, as well as from the common roots of their different belief systems. Neither of them take religious devotion seriously, nor invest in the kind of practical support of their tenants that might justify their own material privilege.
Vera and Peter understand their priorities, even on a pragmatic level, in different ways. While Peter idealizes their country house, Starvecrow, as a place more like Jenny’s new home—a thriving farm that can offer “the peace that follows boldness”—Vera insists on turning it into a stylish showroom, which she thinks is Peter wants. Instead of a “house of loving hearts” united in a common endeavour, Starvecrow becomes “just a place where an unhappy man and woman lived, yearning, fleeing, mistrusting, betraying each other.”
Tragically, Peter ends up blaming his wife’s religion and the life of their newborn daughter for this discord, even though his own sins of insincerity, idolatry, emotional infidelity, and outright anti-Semitism far outweigh Vera’s mistakes. Despite her superficiality, Vera remains a “good mother” and a sincere, carefree, if unhappy spouse – a sympathetic character – in ways that Peter finds impossible to reciprocate.
Allard most fully portrays the equal dignity of spouses in the marriage of Jenny Alard and Ben Godfrey. Class inequality aside – and Kaye-Smith demonstrates the relative irrelevance of class for characters whose “tastes and habits”, loves and goals are closely compatible – their love serves as a sign of unwavering unity. Ben’s traditions of honor and virtue, which the Allards revile but disrespect in practice, give the pair common ground for meetings, although, as Kaye-Smith tells us, “there were other things that were difficult, [Jenny] was too bright not to admit the difficulties.”
Jenny and Ben’s diligent contentment with their modest means, accepting a life of challenge and work, serves as a practical rebuke to the pride, idolatry, and selfishness that destroy the other marriages in the novel. And it is only in the context of the fates of all his siblings that Gervase’s choices show their fullest meaning, which is not revealed until the novel’s quasi-apocalyptic conclusion.
Over the shades of implicit judgment above, Kaye-Smith’s narration maintains a warm patience with the inner lives, desires and longings of his characters. He saves his satire for their habits of conspicuous consumption, which are inflated by custom and opportunism beyond the bounds of what is natural, necessary or just. Only those characters who turn their backs on luxury and face selfish forms of love find redemption in the Alard house.
Katy Carl is editor-in-chief Freckled things and the author Like Earth without watera novel published in 2021 by Wiseblood Books.