“O let us be married! too long we have tarried:But what shall we do for a ring?”They sailed away, for a year and a day,To the land where the Bong-Tree growsAnd there in a wood a Piggy-wig stoodWith a ring at the end of his nose,His nose,His nose,With a ring at the end of his nose.
Ten years. In a decade, those fluffy towels have migrated to the basement, faded and threadbare. The dinner plates once registered for — the ones reviewers warned were fragile — have been shattered, one by one, as if methodically, and replaced with a mishmash you hate. The slow cooker died when its insert shattered; the toaster oven was given to a friend when it wouldn’t fit in the moving van.
While I was spending my first (always insomniac) night postpartum in the hospital, J and Roo snoring softly on either side, I read The Awakening of Miss Prim, something I’d been meaning to read for ages. Unsurprisingly, given all the recommendations I’d received, I loved it.
Prudencia Prim is a practical modern woman looking for escape, who finds it in the eccentric job posting for a private librarian in a small French town. She soon finds herself working for the equally frustrating and charming Man in the Wing Chair, organizing his enviable private library and taking part — somewhat unwillingly — in the life of the household, where he’s raising his nieces and nephews and educating others from the village. Almost despite herself, Miss Prim is drawn in to the unusual community, challenging everything she held dear.
Along the way, she receives the wonderful advice:
“You must not aspire to finding a husband who’s your equal, but one who’s absolutely and completely better than you.”
This was something I took for granted in my parents’ marriage: it was always obvious that each believed the other had settled. My mom admired my dad; my dad admired my mom. And so I set out to find a boy who was my superior, and, like my parents before me, lucked out: John Bowers, a constant inspiration to me to be more kind, patient, energetic, creative.
(Warning: mild Awakening of Miss Prim spoilers)
Like the Man in the Wing Chair, he’s brimming with bookish ideas and convictions and cheerful rants. One of the lines in which the Man in the Wing Chair most reminded me of my husband was this one:
“He wasn’t delightful in arguments, or in debates: he wouldn’t yield an inch concerning what he believed to be true, and he had no mercy with opponents when he saw they weren’t on his level.”
J is a formidable debater who argued several friends into the Catholic Church before succumbing himself. His conviction in debate can make me nervous — I spend a lot of energy monitoring people’s feelings and worry about hurting someone. But his bravery in arguing for the truth reminds me I could stand to gain in tenacity.
One piece reveals the author’s inspirations in crafting her protagonist, exclaiming: “How could one not want to read a novel in which the male protagonist is a composite of C.S. Lewis, John Senior and Mr. Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma!” While I’m not familiar with John Senior, except by name, biographies of C. S. Lewis have often reminded me of J: intellectually fleet and tough, slightly intimidating in intensity, boisterous with joy. And while Emma isn’t my favorite Austen novel, Mr. Knightley is definitely one of my favorite Austen heroes, one who’s absolutely and completely superior to Emma.
Another passage that struck me as familiar is this one, in which a friend characterizes the Man to Miss Prim:
“And there’s a third group, to which your Man in the Wing Chair belongs, whose aim is to escape from the dragon. They want to protect their children from the influences of the world, to return to the purity of old customs, recover the splendor of an ancient culture.”
Especially in this season, when J’s been able to take a lot of parental leave, I’ve seen all the big and small ways he seeks to protect our kids and “return to the purity of old customs” as he helps educate our kids, reads them books by the fire and leads them in Christmas carols on his violin.
We don’t know from the text if the Man in the Wing Chair sports a spectacular beard, like J, or if Miss Prim ends up with her Man in the Wing Chair. But today, on my Man in the Wing Chair’s birthday, I’m so glad I married mine.
J and I have been together since we were 17, so young that we still bought our shoes a size up because we were still growing. He was my first kiss, my prom date.
(This post is just pretty much pure self indulgence, I might as well tell you now.)
Pregnancy is a long, hard season for our marriage that concretely builds our reliance and faith in each other, but doesn’t allow for a lot of fun adventures — although this time around, we’ve been having the occasional “date,” when he wakes me up at 9 or 10 so we can watch a little TV in bed and I can snack before I go back to sleep and he continues with his Functional Human tasks. Party on.
This is the sort of love note we exchange in pregnancy:
For our first anniversary, we took a spontaneous overnight trip to New Orleans and ate rabbit at the fanciest restaurant we could afford. We drank very cheap, very bad champagne in our room, and the next morning we ate beignets and drove through torrential Southern rain on our way back to Tallahassee.
For this, our ninth anniversary, we probably won’t go out because my queasiness gets worse around 4 and I usually go to bed by 7, but my in-laws said they’d babysit for us so we could go out when they’re in town in a couple of weeks, when maybe my body will have finally conceded that it’s second trimester and straightened up.
Pregnancy is a dull time in our marriage, but a time when I see how much we’ve grown since the gawky high school days. That growing up isn’t always fun, but I’m so proud and in love with the bearded papa-man I find myself married to these days, grey at the temples, compassion for wimpy old pregnant me in his every gesture.
I think I first read That Hideous Strength when I was 18 or 19 and systematically making my way through C.S. Lewis’s canon. The conclusion of his Space Trilogy, THS is very different in tone and style from the first two books, and I didn’t much like it.
I gave it another chance at 21 while studying abroad in Oxford. I was engaged (J was studying abroad nearby in London), and I was starting to think about applying to doctoral programs for English literature. My time in Oxford only confirmed for me the rightness of both decisions: I loved traveling England with J and I loved the long mornings spent writing about Bleak House or the impact of the British school story on Harry Potter. When I read That Hideous Strength beside The Place of the Lion and saw the influence his friend Charles Williams had on Lewis’s writing, it sort of made more sense. But it was far from my favorite of Lewis’s works, even though it’s one of J’s favorite books ever.
Lewis is not someone who writes very often of women, having led an unusually male-centric bachelor life, and this book is, for the most part, fittingly male-centric. There are drinks at pubs, and jargon at the office, and later, a lot of kind of gross-out violence. Boy stuff. And yet.
The first sentence reads, “’Matrimony was ordained, thirdly’, said Jane Studdock to herself, ‘for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.'” Then follows a plodding description of the emptiness of her existence as a housewife, concluding bleakly, “The sun shone and the clock ticked.” It’s a strange opening for a book that will encompass disembodied, sentient heads, Merlin, and more.
The reader soon learns that “marriage had proved to be the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do, into something like solitary confinement.” The fate was practically mandated in the 1940s, when Lewis was writing, but is not unlike bleak, isolated moments of modern motherhood. It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Jane, though: “She had always intended to continue her own career as a scholar after she was married: that was one of the reasons why they were to have no children, at any rate for a long time yet.” This part, at least, is not entirely unlike my own evolution from first reading THS to reading today, from PhD applicant to full-time mama.
Lewis suggests we compare Jane with Mother Dimble, her friend who “had been a kind of unofficial aunt to all the girls of her year” and whose house “was a kind of noisy salon all the term.” This Mother Dimble draws Jane to the safety of the resistance movement when things turn sinister in town under the sway of the National Institute of Co-Ordinated Experiment (N.I.C.E).
Jane is called to the resistance’s shared house at St Anne’s when she begins to exhibit second sight. It is revealed, in the kind of line we now recognize from superhero movies, “You are a more important person that you imagine.” As she rails against her second sight, Jane is also, perhaps, railing against her fate as a married woman called to something different than she had intended: “I want to lead an ordinary life. I want to do my own work. It’s unbearable! Why should I be selected for this horrible thing?”
Jane’s marriage is not a happy one as the novel opens, and her husband Mark falls into the wrong crowd at work. It turns out marriage is much more central to identity than Jane, or 21-year-old Katherine, believed. The Director, a sort of Arthurian spiritual director [this book is so weird please bear with me], explains: “Child […] it is not a question of how you or I look on marriage but how my Masters look on it.” He continues, “You do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love because you never attempted obedience.” Indeed, this entire novel can be seen in terms of obedience, and while the strict hierarchy that puts the women at St. Anne’s below both the Director and their husbands is uncomfortable to modern sensibilities, it is exactly this order that stands in contrast to the apparently egalitarian, sinister circle which draws in Mark Studdock.
Jane’s story in THS is the movement from cold and lonely independence to loving interdependence. She discovers, gradually, that her starting principles have been faulty:
“To avoid entanglements and interferences had long been one of her first principles. Even when she had discovered that she was going to marry Mark if he asked her, the thought, ‘But I still must keep up my own life,’ had arisen at once and had never for more than a few minutes at a stretch been absent from her mind. Some resentment against love itself, and therefore against Mark, for thus invading her life, remained. She was at least very vividly aware how much a woman gives up in getting married. Mark seemed to her insufficiently aware of this. Though she did not formulate it, this fear of being invaded and entangled was the deepest ground of her determination not to have a child — or not for a long time yet. One had one’s own life to live.”
This is, after all, marriage and motherhood, right? Becoming entangled, inextricably.
Domesticity is immediately more bearable when Mother Dimble comes to stay briefly with Jane. “The whole process of getting up and doing the ‘morning jobs’ was more cheerful, Jane found, because she had Mrs. Dimble with her.” Children are also presented as more than just a hindrance as Mrs Dimble reflects on her own home: “All those big empty rooms which we thought we should want because we thought we were going to have lots of children, and then we never did.” Her words foreshadow the the dual themes of living in community (vs “empty rooms”) and the gift of children.
At the shared household at St. Anne’s, Jane discovers
“A wide, open hearth glowing with burning wood lit up the comfortable form of Mrs. Dimble, who was seated in a kitchen chair at one side of it, apparently, from the basin in her lap and other indications on a table beside her, engaged in preparing vegetables. Mrs. Maggs and Camilla were doing something at a stove—the hearth was apparently not used for cooking—and in a doorway which doubtless led to the scullery a tall grizzle-headed man who wore gum boots and seemed to have just come from the garden, was drying his hands.”
It’s an appealing image, and though primarily feminine, has the aspect, at least, of men contributing to the life of the household.
Upon meeting the Director, Jane “surrendered without terms […] abandoned (without noticing it) that prim little grasp on her own destiny, that perpetual reservation, which she thought essential to her status as a grown-up, integrated, intelligent person.” Reading it in light of current feminist thinking, it’s an uncomfortable passage, because shouldn’t we all be in charge of our own destiny? And yet, from a Christian perspective, might it be meant to be read universally, not merely as the proper realm of a woman, since after all, aren’t we all called to surrender without terms?
The novel concludes on a tiny scale, Jane obediently “descending the ladder of humility” as she crosses the yard to the cottage where her husband waits: “Then she thought of her obedience and the setting of each foot before the other became a kind of sacrificial ceremony. And she thought of children, and of pain and death.” She hesitates, unaware Mark is waiting inside; then, seeing through a window his heaped clothes, she enters in with loving, housewifely exasperation.
So what, in the end, is the point of all this domesticity and marriage talk in the cosmic battle of good and evil? Afterwards, once the N.I.C.E. has been dissolved, MacPhee demands, “I’d be greatly obliged if any one would tell me what we have done — always apart from feeding the pigs and raising some very decent vegetables.” I’m reminded of John Milton’s line, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” and Lewis would have been particularly steeped in Milton. The book makes more sense to me on this third reading, as I’ve moved toward a life more centered around the hearth, more intentional about love and obedience. Maybe loving well, feeding the pigs and raising some very decent vegetables is the point, for most of us, most of the time.
A few years ago I attended a wedding with a really memorable homily. The rest of the wedding was apparently less memorable, because I can’t remember whose it was. My brother-in-law’s?
Anyway, the priest talked about how, by attending the wedding, we were all making a promise to root for the couple in their marriage. In the Book of Common Prayer marriage ceremony, there’s this bit:
The Celebrant then addresses the congregation, saying: Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?
People: We will.
This meant, and means, putting their marriage ahead of our individual relationships with the new husband and wife. If it was my brother-in-law’s wedding, this message especially made sense because the bride and groom were very young, and for many of the attendees, this was one of the first weddings of their peers they’d ever attended.
Now that I am no longer a 24-year-old sitting in the pew beaming up at my devastatingly handsome be-tuxed (tuxed-up?) husband but rather a 30-year-old pulled in a thousand directions, a tiny hand clutched in each of my own, this message seems particularly relevant. Today, on our eighth wedding anniversary, I’m grateful for my sweet, strong, dedicated husband, but I’m also brought back to that priest’s words.
So many people have upheld our marriage. We’ve been blessed to come from a long line of healthy marriages, and we have a lot of folks to look up to. J’s mom advised me that she and J’s dad have a rule: Only one person gets to be mad at a time. My dad advised me that if you don’t feel like you’re giving more than 50% to your marriage, you’re not giving enough.
We’ve also been upheld by friends: friends who are transparent with their marriages, without being whiny, and talked openly about conflict in finance and parenting style and life goals. Friends who have modeled the difficulty of out-of-sync conversions, and marriage that sees career as a shared means toward an end, not an identity. We have friends who have prayed for the conception of our babies, and their safe delivery, and spoken frankly to us about their experiences with that marriage grenade, NFP.
I’ve had reading to guide me — though it seems like basically every recent novel is more about a marriage irreparably imploding — and even found encouragement in fluff like Parenthood, which reminds us that a marriage is worth fighting for.
I want to remind you all that how you live is building up or tearing down the marriages around you. Whether you pretend that marriage is effortless for you while a friend struggles, or indulge in cruel remarks about your spouse that open other marriages up to criticism, your actions affect the unions around you. Remember, please, that vow you may have made even if you’ve never married, simply by attending the wedding of someone you love — to do all in your power to uphold these two sweet, imperfect friends in their marriage.