Author Barbara Dafoe Whitehead on books about love and marriage



February 10, 2007

1. The Book of Abigail and John
Edited by L.H. Butterfield, Marc Friedlaender and Mary-Jo Kline
Harvard, 1975

Abigail Adams once begged her husband to burn all her letters. Fortunately, John refused. Their letters -- 200 or so of them are gathered in this volume -- provide a documentary portrait of a soulmate marriage that has few parallels in American history. The Adamses' letters depict a relationship that endured amid long separations, revolution and fears about their own safety and survival. But the lasting charm and appeal of the correspondence is due to the letter writers themselves. Few Founding couples were so well-matched in background, intellect, candor and patriotic fervor. Few could write letters that sounded just the way they talked. Few were so frankly affectionate and deeply admiring of each other. John wrote tenderly to his wife: "You are really brave, my dear, you are an Heroine." Abigail returned his love but often with a dash of tartness: "Courage is laudable, a Glorious Virtue in your Sex, why not in mine?"

2. Elegy for Iris
By John Bayley
St. Martin's, 1999

This is a memoir of a marriage as an act of imagination. The British literary scholar John Bayley fell madly in love with the young philosopher Iris Murdoch when he saw her riding her bicycle past his window. Two years later, they entered a long and happy marriage of mutual solitude -- living together and writing apart. When Iris began to suffer from Alzheimer's, their cozy independence vanished. Yet amid a life dramatically altered by Iris's decline, Bayley's memory protects her dignity and redeems their marriage. To the world, Iris is a brilliant thinker sadly diminished. To John, even as he settles down with her to watch "Teletubbies," her favorite program, she is forever riding her bicycle past his window.

3. Miss Manners on (Painfully Proper) Weddings
By Judith Martin
Crown, 1995

The syndicated etiquette columnist Judith Martin is one of the leading critics of American manners and mores. In this volume, she offers a funny and razor-sharp critique of today's bloated, Buckingham Palace-scale weddings. But this isn't the usual Bridezilla send-up. Miss Manners has a serious point to make. A wedding, she reminds spouses-to-be, is not just about "the two of us." It is the ritual celebration of a union that creates its own little society, including those we love, those we like and those we merely tolerate. But like all good societies, she admonishes, the wedding and marriage itself require that everyone be treated with consideration and kindness.

4. Middlemarch
By George Eliot

Virginia Woolf famously described this work as one of the few English novels for grown-ups. Interweaving themes of love and work, it is a meditation on the freedom to choose -- and the moral consequences of choosing wrongly. Its central characters -- the bookish Dorothea Brooke and the medical scientist Tertius Lydgate -- are high-minded reformers who pick utterly unsuitable mates. Dorothea chooses an elderly pedant; Lydgate, a vain material girl. This novel of marital disappointment, though, leads not to despair but to something more hopeful. In recognizing the misjudgments as their own, both Dorothea and Lydgate are humanized by their failures, chastened in their ambitions and moved to compassion for those they have chosen wrongly.

5. Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage
By Mary Soames
Houghton Mifflin, 1979

Shy, beautiful, insecure, 23-year old Clementine Hozier married a force of nature named Winston Churchill. In this sympathetic but unsentimental biography of her mother, Mary Soames chronicles a marriage that was, from the very start, overwhelming in its emotional and social demands, consuming in its political ambitions, extravagantly impractical in money matters, and burdened by frequent separations. Yet it was the daunting circumstances of her marriage that led Clementine to shed her shyness and to develop her own capacity for politics and public life. During the war, she became an admired public figure, tirelessly raising money for aid to the Russians and for hostels, maternity homes and bomb shelters, all the while remaining fiercely protective of her husband and family. Despite her fragile beauty, she was made of steel or, as Winston would have it, of stone. "I reproach myself for many shortcomings," he once wrote to her. "You are a rock & I depend on you & rest on you."

Ms. Whitehead is the author of The Divorce Culture: Rethinking Our Commitments to Marriage and Family , and Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

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