Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages - Katie Roiphe Uncommon Arrangements seems a simplistic title at first, until the reader begins to realize how very complicated and uncommon the subjects are. Though the era she focuses on overlaps with WWI, some of the unions author Katie Roiphe details may seem shocking or odd, even to modern readers. There is a general feeling today, what with skyrocketing divorce rates, people living together but not married, and the question over gay marriage, that marriage and relationships in general are more complex, harder to maintain, and more unorthodox than in the past. In her magnificent book, however, Roiphe makes it very clear that such an assumption is naive and, as assumptions usually are, incorrect.

Seven marriages (or "marriages," as some, for various reasons, were never legal) from the turn of the last century are all brought together with themes that still resonate in the 21st as society confronts a divorce rate of nearly half. Stable domestic life inevitably creates a routine to sustain it--laundry, homemaking, coffee making, the familiarity of the body next to you in bed--which can lead to boredom. It is no easy task to keep up lovers momentum and to maintain an active engagement in one another. The couples she highlights--

- Vera Brittain & George Catlin, and Winifred Holtby
- Katherine Mansfield & John Middleton Murry
- H.G. Wells & Jane Wells, and Rebecca West
- Elizabeth von Arnim & John Francis Russell
- Vanessa & Clive Bell, and Duncan Grant
- Ottoline & Phillip Morrell
- Radclyffe Hall & Una Trowbridge

--believed, or at least one in the partnership believed, that human happiness should come of a marriage, and that belief left the way clear to toss aside monogamy in the marriage bed. Communication is vaunted today as the cornerstone of a healthy relationship, and these couples agreed--to the extreme. They believed that as long as they were honest about their affairs and indiscretions, then everything was all right. Many times, it was this same honesty that destroyed what they were trying to create.

In bohemian circles in pre-WWI through WWII circles, to be artsy was to defy convention. (That same belief is alive and well today, though the context is very different. At the turn of the century, to turn one's back on conventional society and financial stability in order to pursue the arts was tantamount to ruin. One had to succeed; that was the only option. There was no welfare and no government programs designed to help the impoverished, let alone those who chose that poverty. The term "starving artist" has a very real basis in fact.) In nearly everything they did, these individuals were challenging the social and cultural mores of their day, consciously, purposely, as a matter of principle, and with varying degrees of success. Born in the Victorian age and straddling the post-WWI era, Roiphe's subjects were tossing off the conventions and rules of the old, straight-laced society in favor of a new, looser, more creative way of being. Naturally, their efforts extended into their marriages, manifesting in a multitude of ways. Vanessa Bell managed to create a "family" of friends, lovers, ex-lovers, her children, and her husband with success that would boggle the minds of many of today's blended families. In other instances, there were menage a trois, multiple affairs, jealousies, broken hearts, new loves, and new ideas sprouting all around. Roiphe manages to weave the intricate workings of these relationships--with such large casts of characters--into a coherent, thoroughly enjoyable read.

One aspect of the book I truly enjoyed was the way in which the individual subjects, all contemporaries more or less, were observers of and commentators on each others' relationship dramas. For instance, Roiphe draws on letters of the time to give Ottoline Morrell's opinion of the affair between H.G. Wells and Rebecca West; later, Ottoline herself is studied. Virginia Woolf, sister of Vanessa Bell, lends commentary to every single segment, her voice charming, witty, opinionated, and woven neatly throughout the text. Moving from one household to the next, familiar voices of the period comment through letters and memoirs, and names crop up repeatedly in chapters that aren't necessarily their "own." There are myriad ways these figures are all related to one another, and one of the joys of Uncommon Arrangements is realizing this. Brilliantly, Roiphe manages to keep the reader from being overwhelmed by these complexities of relationships with a knack for clarity and story-telling that keeps the reader moving along with her.

With such an intimate subject matter, it would have been quite easy for Uncommon Arrangements to have a creepy, voyeuristic quality. Roiphe has done a fantastic job in avoiding that, making a concentrated effort to keep the the subject matter from being distasteful or exploitive. She's straightforward and factual without being judgemental, and the lightness of the writing helps keep things moving along without getting bogged down in potentially gossipy-type moments. Very nicely done.

Roiphe has done excellent research for this book, putting forth a huge amount of primary material--journals, memoirs, letters, etc.--without getting bogged down in the sheer amount of names, places, and facts. She also does a decent job of setting the social and political context of these times and relationships out for the reader, so as to make the study more full. As I said before, she completely avoids judging her subjects, and she tells the story in such a way that one never forgets they are reading a history. There is sheer enjoyment in these pages, and I was pleasantly surprised just how much I loved this book.

One thing of note:

During the section on Vanessa and Clive Bell, the author gently handled the subject of their children...and she did so honestly. Many biographers and idealists (see Virginia Nicholson's "Among the Bohemians" for an example) tend to gloss over the children, especially how growing up in such an environment affected them. Roiphe is direct and honest about how poorly the Bell children were tended by their parents and the Bloomsbury circle.

Incredible book with incredible writing. Well done, Katie Roiphe! Highly recommended.