Tragic portrait of a marriage

Private Life, by Jane Smiley, Faber & Faber £12.99, 432 pages, FT Bookshop price: £11.99

Jane Smiley has written a persuasive historical paean to the importance of divorce. Though disparaged as a modern-day social ill, the dissolution of once horribly permanent marital ties has released many a woman from misery. Private Life dissects the kind of marriage that so many wives continued to tolerate through the first half of the 20th century, when divorce was legally possible yet remained scandalous.

The marriage at issue isn’t generic but terribly particular. Born in 1878 and raised in small-town Missouri, Margaret marries Andrew, a few years her senior, at the hoary old age of 27, by which time her mother had begun to despair that Margaret was marked for old-maidenhood. Clearly intelligent and a great reader, Margaret is expected to find her destiny in a man. This turns out to be Andrew, whom she follows to his work at an observatory in California.

Aside from a dissection of a quietly disastrous marriage over the course of half a century, Private Life is also a character study of Andrew – a vain, grandiose, although, it seems at first, well-regarded Navy astronomer who in time turns to physics, railing against the ludicrous theories of the misguided upstart Albert Einstein. Smiley is adept at manipulating reader uncertainty about whether Andrew might at least possess some brilliance, and we follow Margaret’s gradual sense of dismal revelation as her husband grows consumed with writing a multi-volume work about the nature of the universe. Meanwhile, he also encourages a parasitic rake to compose a massive biography about himself, which he plans to have released in tandem with his own prolix pontifications: The Amazing Discoveries of Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early.

By Smiley’s latter pages we have arrived at the same verdict as Margaret has: “Just then, she saw Andrew as the world saw him, and she did it all at once, as if he had turned into a brick and fallen into her lap – who he was was that solid and permanent to her – he was a fool.” Yet Smiley astutely complicates our conclusion when he correctly intuits what really happened during the Rape of Nanking, though the Japanese have successfully disguised their atrocities from the rest of the world.

It turns out that the intermittently paranoid Andrew, who has a penchant for conspiracy theories, had a history of mental illness previous to the marriage, which both Margaret’s mother-in-law and her own mother knew very well when she was betrothed. In addition to her sharp disappointment in the dreariness and emotional dissatisfaction of “wedded bliss”, Margaret in time feels fiercely betrayed by these women: “They had known what marriage was like. They had known what Andrew was like. That they had colluded in bringing this very moment about made her tremble with something unspeakable.”

Margaret, too, is a character study – of a woman who has embraced her culture’s notion of feminine virtue. Failing to recall her mother’s advice that a wife is only obliged to be obedient for the first year, she types and retypes all of her husband’s interminable manuscripts, and learns to drive in order to ferry him around. She swallows the grief of losing her only child in infancy, whose failure to thrive Andrew had disdained as weakness. Duly gathering knitting circles and pursuing charity work, she also swallows any negative thoughts about her husband, whose goofball theories she at least officially supports. Towards the end of the novel her disillusionment with this version of virtue is total. Thus when a friend commends, “Everyone knows you’re a good woman,” Margaret reflects, “It sounded like an insult.”

In her subject matter Smiley invites comparisons to Edith Wharton, though she isn’t quite the fine stylist that Wharton was. However, this is able storytelling, with a wide cast of ancillary characters who are each well drawn: “He was one of those sorts of men that women were wiser to stay away from, men who took an interest in women, and observed them, and knew what they were thinking.” While the novel unfolds at perhaps too leisurely a pace, the period details are well chosen and not heavy-handedly stuffed in. As in all good historical novels, history itself perks along in the background, including the two world wars, while the personal – private life – takes centre stage.

Feminist in the best sense, Private Life examines a certain variety of marriage: not terrible but also not warm, not equal and devoid of mutual respect. A union that contemporary women would flee in a heartbeat but exactly one of a sort that legions of women in times past have endured to the grave. Lacking the liberation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House or any final epiphany, the ending is bitter. That may deprive the novel of violin-section uplift but also provides it a grim realism. Fiction can’t fudge the unpalatable fact that most women in Margaret’s position did not escape such marriages.

Lionel Shriver is the author of ‘So Much for That’ (HarperCollins)

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