Reading Journal: "The Curate's Wife"
E.H. Young, The Curate's Wife. Virago Modern Classics 1984. Originally published in Great Britain in 1934.
A cursory examination of my bookshelves reveals several novels, all written by women, with titles like The Curate's Wife, The Rector's Daughter, Her Son's Wife and The Optimist's Daughter—in other words, novels whose titles are taken, not from a woman's name, but from a woman's relationship, as wife or daughter, to a man.
Jane Austen's novels—inevitably, we come back to Jane Austen—are essentially Regency coming-of-age stories. They're about how Catherine Morland or Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse grow up, find themselves, and find romance into the bargain. The novels end with a marriage—but don't go any further to imagine how that marriage is sustained over the years that follow.
In so many of the great Victorian novels, the marriage plot is given an extra twist, and becomes a remarriage plot. An unsuitable first marriage—David Copperfield to Dora, Dorothea to Casaubon, Helen Graham to Arthur Huntingdon, Mr. Rochester to the mad woman in the attic—is set up as an obstacle to the two true lovers. We do see husbands and wives working hard at their relationships, or resigning themselves to relationships that don't work at all, but the death of one spouse usually brings resolution. The novel ends with a marriage after all. The first marriage is only a test, or in David Copperfield's case, a kind of toy marriage.
The Curate's Wife is a sequel to Jenny Wren—a novel that takes its title from the female protagonist, Jenny Rendall, a self-centered girl struggling to find her place in the world. It's a kind of coming-of-age story. Jenny's sister, Dahlia, marries the dull, earnest, and thoroughly smitten Rev. Cecil Sproat, and becomes the eponymous curate's wife. Her story is more about how relationships are sustained. It's a novel about marriage—not marriage as a happy ending, but marriage as a career.
"It has to be a career," Dahlia says, "not just the happiness you think it will be, or the unhappiness it may turn out."
At the same time, Jenny, who has remained unmarried, finds herself in a Jane Austen plot—so much so that Austen's own Lady Catherine De Bourgh makes an unexpected comic appearance in the novel. E.H. Young acknowledges her own deep debt to Jane Austen, while at the same time acknowledging that there is a real story beyond the happy ending.
Also, unlike Austen, Young acknowledges that her men and women are physical beings who experience sexual attraction and long for physical intimacy. The most unsympathetic and maladjusted character in the novel is a woman who "would never forgive [her husband] the physical intimacy of their youth," and has been left with "an unacknowledged, unreasonable feeling that she had been insulted." In a way that seems remarkable for 1934, E.H. Young acknowledges that a healthy sexual relationship is an important part of a successful marriage.