Ever since Ibsen’s Nora walked out of the “doll’s house”, literature has been questioning marriage and patriarchy. Many of the greatest novels, plays and films we have revolve around the consequences of wives choosing adultery over convention. The price for 19th-century heroines, from Anna Karenina to Emma Bovary, was death: but as feminism spread through the last century, that narrative has changed.
These days, it’s quite likely that the erring husband is the one to be dispatched. Meg Wolitzer’s hugely entertaining The Wife – the film adaptation of which is out this month starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce – imagines a marriage in which a dignified middle-aged woman endures a long marriage to a celebrated, shamelessly adulterous novelist. Rejecting pity, she calls herself “a king-maker”: there is much more to this union than first appears. Anyone who knows about Colette’s marriage (also on screen soon with Keira Knightley as the French novelist) may guess what.
The marriage of warring writers holds an eternal fascination, as the new edition of Sylvia Plath’s letters shows. But what of ordinary couples? Fiction thrives on conflict, but where novels of the 1960s to early 80s, from Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates to Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil posited women’s revenge through self-reinvention, a different kind of heroine is emerging. She sometimes chooses to renegotiate, and possibly to forgive.
One of the best and earliest novels about this is by Elizabeth Jenkins. The Tortoise and the Hare concerns the 1950s marriage between the beautiful but passive Imogen, who realises that her distinguished barrister husband is falling for a neighbour, a woman who is competent, rich and ruthless. The perfection of its tone and prose is matched by an anguished wit.
Equally searing is Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Its narrator, Olga, has been left by her husband of 15 years; she copes with her own devastation and two young children and a dog in a broiling apartment. Her excoriating humiliations and breakdown ring with truth; the novel promises a glimmer of hope that her life might ultimately be rebuilt.
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl gives two very different accounts of Nick and Amy’s twisted marriage, escalating into a thriller. At its heart is a wife’s Machiavellian revenge for infidelity, but the brilliance of the novel is its author’s perception that “marriage is sort of like a long con, because you put on display your very best self during courtship, yet at the same time the person you marry is supposed to love you, warts and all”.
Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living is a meditation on the way that a modern marriage still requires a wife to “wear a mask and her face grows to fit it”, especially when children arrive. Her account of her marriage breakdown and determination to be an artist is beautifully defiant and full of acute observation.
And for entertaining insights, Ada Calhoun’s Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give has honest advice about not getting divorced, starting with understanding that “marriage is not a happiness factory”.