“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of...”
Well. Maybe nothing? Of course, there are the countermanding poor-little-rich-girl arguments. But let’s talk about the woman of a certain age. A woman who has arrived. A woman such as Jane Averham, the heroine in Margaret Westhaven’s Four in Hand.
When we meet her at the ripe old age of 34, Jane has suffered through a tedious marriage to a philandering, careless husband, produced two lovely daughters, and attained her widowhood. She worked hard for it, honey. And along comes a young, dashing, smoldering Archibald MacGowan. In a wonderful reversal of the familiar wayward-single-girl-in-need-of-rescuing, Jane wants an affaire du coeur and it is the gentleman who wants the formal, public commitment of marriage.
Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen made the great double-entendre: “you can’t have one without the other” in their classic song “Love and Marriage.” I always took that to mean the woman wasn’t going to put out until she’d secured the man’s troth, a sentiment that seems to come up in songs (and society) through the ages. The cow. The milk. Put a ring on it. You’re never gonna get it. But all of that nah-nah-nah gets sort of tired. And also leaves the active, sexy woman in the unenviable position of not being able to have any sexual agency unless it is shackled to an ultimatum. But if everybody’s getting lots of milk for free, and perfectly happy about the state of the dairy farm, what’s the point of marriage again?
Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) I like to imagine these Regency romances in the present. Let’s give these ladies and gentlemen a bit more sexual and societal freedom, shall we? I still want the fairy tale happy ending, but I want to see how That Girl gets there, despite all the lures of the dashing dukes and eager earls. Margaret Westhaven gets a fair share of freedom by Regency standards by setting her story in Vienna where, it seems, everyone is running from one tryst to another. Take Jane’s friend Wilhelmine, for example:
Wilhelmine de Sagan had been divorced twice and was rumored to lead a nearly libertine existence—in short, to behave as men had been doing for centuries. Many censured her for such behavior, and some would not receive her, including the Castlereaghs, who were doing their best to see that what was most unyielding and upright of British virtues was displayed to Vienna this Season.
The problem with modern (or just racy) settings, though, begs the question, what is the happily ever after if not marriage?
Some romance readers accept something called happy-for-now. I get that. The two people have made it through the black moment, they’re together, give them a break already. But for me everything always goes back to the original romance scribe, Jane Austen, who teaches us that a happy ending, perforce, requires nuptials.
Between Four in Hand and Laura Kipnis’s Against Love: A Polemic, I have been drowning in marriages lately. Some characters desperate to achieve them, some desperate to escape them. On the one hand, as a reader I found Four in Hand problematic because of the extensive cast of characters. I cared about Jane, but her story was constantly interrupted by the sub-plots of all her charges (in the first few chapters, young women in need of chaperonage seem to turn up at her house like motherless kittens). On the other hand, despite the emotional distance, I still felt really engaged in the story. I wanted to see how it turned out.
Each of the female characters represents a different attitude toward marriage. For one low born gel it means security and a love she’d (very pragmatically) never even allowed herself to hope for: Petra was all business when she set out, advising Jane’s youngest daughter,
“...you must have a great deal of money secured to you before you try any such thing as taking lovers without the protection of marriage.”
For one passionate musician it means a dreaded removal from the piano she adores: Phyllida would not be swayed into a foolish romance when there was Beethoven to be played and admired. (Jane’s concession to let Phyllida beg off the rest of the Season also grants Jane one of those rare maternal triumphs: to grant your child something of which you had been robbed.)
For a cool, arrogant Scotswoman marriage is a chore: Flora hopes marriage to a weak, ne’er-do-well will ensure that she retains power and independence without the requisite obedience to a husband.
And then there is Jane.
I love this woman. She has been widowed for three years and she is quite spectacular, in that delightfully approachable way that makes you feel like you could be great friends. She is accessible. But for many years, she has also been a pushover. She is looking forward to wielding a little bit of her own power, showing herself and her charges off to best effect in this, her daughter’s first Season out in society. The conflict is timeless: How do we fulfill all of our roles as women, especially when they collide? This is a theme that I tend to gravitate toward.
I remember one time I visited my parents when my daughter was about two years old. I honestly had not reckoned how upsetting it was going to be for me to be both daughter and mother simultaneously. When you are disciplining a two year old under the close watch of seasoned parents, it is more stressful than speaking in front of a room full of 500 people. Or at least it was for me.
Jane Averham is in the same bind. She wants to be the mother, the corralling shepherdess who brings her pretty little things to the opera and the balls in Vienna. But she’s also a hottie. There’s one party where she is particularly flushed and sparkling (I wonder why?) and it is great to see how she finally has to give up the ruse of being a matron. She simply isn’t one. She makes sure that each of the girls is safely speaking to men of high quality, then gets back to the pleasures of enchanting her own clutch of admirers.
Of course Jane and MacGowan end up together (after all, the cover bears “The Signet Guarantee of Quality”!) She realizes it was just a matter of trust, and as long as he loves her as he does she will never feel the suffocation and torment of her first marriage.
“Are you still afraid?” He searched her face. “Can you really be afraid of me?”
“Not of you. Of marriage. Of giving over my freedom again. [...] You’re controlling me as I was controlled all my life until I became a widow. Oh, I don’t know what to think. This insistent lover thrilled me, make no mistake. But this! You give no thoughts to my wishes, only charge forth with your own, determined to carry the day.”
Oddly enough, I was kind of rooting for her to stand her ground at this point. She was free. He was charging forth.
“I love you,” he said. “Our union would be so much more than you had with that fool—and he was a fool not to cherish you greatly. We would have so many wonderful discoveries to make together.”
“Would we?”...Marriage with him sounded like a perfectly reasonable solution to this problem of mutual love. But was this only another example of her wretched tendency to bend to others’ wills?
Then she thought of something new. In this case, his wishes happened to match her own. She did love him so, and marriage was what he wanted. She would be taking a chance, of course, but how many chances had she taken all by herself? This would be an adventure all her own—hers and his.
But in today’s world? I doubt she would have given in. It wouldn’t be a romance novel, but it might have still been a happy ending, of sorts, for her.
Which brings us back to Cahn and Van Heusen, and why their lyrics are so enduring. Now that I’ve been married over sixteen years (looks like a duck, quacks like a duck...I need the eggs, etc.) I finally hear the song the other way around. You can’t have one (marriage!) without the other (love)....of both the physical and emotional variety. In order to disrupt the tedium of monogamy after sixteen years or sixty, I bet Jane Averham made a habit of seeing in her old, familiar spouse, that insistent lover who first thrilled her.
Megan Mulry recently signed a three book deal with Sourcebooks.