Marriage in Trouble Plots
I recently returned to reading Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, which I had started last summer and then put aside (I sometimes hit moments when I’m writing when I just can’t read anything). I was drawn back immediately by the richness of the writing and the sharp emotional details. I was also struck by comparing and contrasting the book with the recent film, which I also liked. The major events are the same, but the emotional arc is quite different (though Kitty Fane does grow and change in both). It’s rather as though someone were to film Secrets of a Lady with the same basic plot but have the story end with Charles and Mel realizing they’d never really known or loved each other but staying together for practicality.
The other the thing The Painted Veil got me to thinking about is one of my favorite literary tropes–marriage in trouble plots. They’ve always fascinated me, long before I started writing about the marital angst of Charles and Mélanie Fraser. That’s why, when I cite influences and inspirations for the Charles & Mélanie series, in addition to the more obvious ones like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Scaramouche, Dorothy Dunnett, and Dorothy Sayers, I mention Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books.
Reading The Painted Veil, I pondered the fascination of this plotline. The intimacy of marriage ups the stakes in the conflict between two people. Percy’s devastation at Marguerite’s seeming lack of trustworthiness is all the greater because she has just become his wife. Betrayal, I think, is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. How much worse is it when that betrayal comes from a spouse? Years of living together also gives characters a knowledge of each other that recent lovers wouldn’t have. In The Real Thing, the hero has a wonderful speech about knowing one’s spouse, in a way that goes far beyond carnal. That knowledge can be used for good or ill. George and Martha know just how to push each other’s buttons. So, for that matter, do Maggie and Brick.
Particularly in an historical setting, marriage makes it difficult for two people to walk away from each other, no matter how poisoned their relationship has grown. When I blogged about this topic on my own website, JMM commented that I admit, I like marriage in trouble plots more in historical settings. The stakes are higher because divorce was harder or impossible. There’s a fascinating tension in two people pretending to be a couple to the outside world, while being estranged when they’re alone. Think of Percy and Marguerite keeping up appearances to the beau monde yet unable to communicate in private, Maggie and Brick maintaining the charade of their marriage (or at least Maggie trying to) in front of his family. Kitty and Walter Fane sharing a bungalow in a cholera-infested town, seen by most as a devoted couple who’ve risked infection so as not to be separated.
On my website, Stephanie commented that I tend to think of “marriage in trouble” plots as falling into two categories:
1) The marriage begins in unpropitious circumstances–a forced alliance, a shotgun wedding–and the couple has to try to make it work.
2) The marriage starts out solid, even loving, and then has to weather a serious crisis.
Lesley brought up a third variation and cited our own Pam: Another variation on the theme is Pam Rosenthal’s ‘The Slightest Provocation’, where they married young, there was bad behaviour on both sides, and a long separation, but with maturity they realise that what draws them together is more important than past mistakes.
RfP added What I love about TSP is exactly what you mentioned–the way Kit and Mary know how to push each other’s buttons. Combined with the flashbacks, Rosenthal convinces me the button-pushing is a sign of intimacy and of something worth salvaging, not a sign of toxicity.
One of the many things I love about The Slightest Provocation is the way the flashbacks are interwoven, so the reader learns about Kit and Mary’s marriage as they reflect back on it. A rich portrait of their marriage emerges.
Taryn wrote that she likes marriage in trouble books because there are so many secrets, hidden hurts, and long history to unwrap and sort through. With any married couple, there’s a past to explore–how they came to be married and why, what they both expected from the marriage, how that expectation compares to the current reality. And history is something I love to explore as a writer, whether it’s historical events or the personal history shared by two people.
Do you like marriage in trouble stories? Why or why not? Any favorite examples to suggest? What do you think makes them work? Writers, what are the particular challenges of writing this type of story? If you've written this type of book, do you find yourself spending more time than usual making notes on the characters' history?