Sunday, 9 September 2012

Penguin no. 2032: Scenes from Married Life
by William Cooper

I was referring to a theory Robert and I had of human behaviour, which depended on what we called the Recurring Situation. It was particularly easy to identify in people's sexual lives. Time after time we had seen our friends, not to mention ourselves, embark on a sexual gambit which might superficially look as if it were something new, but which, as time went on, led to a familiar situation - if it were not leading to it in the natural course of events, the instigator of it seemed to force it, himself, into the familiar shape. We got the impression that for many men there was a characteristic situation to which, from whatever point they started, they always tended.

Joe Lunn has made it to the age of 39 without marrying, but one night, as he sits drinking whisky in a bar near Euston Station, it occurs to him that there is something dispiriting, rather than liberating, in the prospect of returning home to an empty flat. He suddenly longs for a waiting wife, and in that moment realises that the time has come for him to leave his bachelor life behind.

He is aware of an obstacle, however, in his plan to marry, and it is not the finding of a suitable woman - that part he assumes will be simple enough. His problem is a flaw he recognises within himself, something he refers to as the 'Recurring Situation'. For many years he has been forming relationships with women who would never marry him, or alternatively, with those he would never choose to marry, and it has been happening for too long for him not to recognise that he is complicit in his own misfortune. If he is to succeed in this plan of getting married, he must break free from his long-practised pattern of behaviour. He perceives it is going to require an act of will.

Scenes from Married Life gives one man's thoughts on marriage, and his growing realisation that it means he must become less self-concerned. The first part concerns his battle against his own prevaricating nature, and details all his doubts and worries as he works towards the new life he is planning for himself. But perhaps the important point is that he is the one doing the planning; the woman is going to have to fit in with the life he is imagining. If the book is still interesting it is because it is a product of its time (published in 1961, but describing 1949): Joe knows he wants someone young and pretty, but beyond that he seems uncertain of what he is looking for, although Catholics are out, and so is anyone with ambition. His dream is of a wife at home preparing his dinner, preferably one who doesn't wish to work, and definitely one who doesn't wish to study. Fortunately he falls for Elspeth (on sight, and before any conversation), and she seems content to go along with his plans.

Harry Hoff (who wrote using the pseudonym William Cooper) appears to have modelled his protagonist upon himself, for Joe Lunn is a civil servant with literary ambitions, as was Hoff, and early in this novel he publishes a book which sounded like Cooper's Scenes from Provincial Life, and towards the end he attempts to publish another which sounded like the book I was reading.  And there were many other correspondences, as author and character were both born in 1910, had studied science, and were employed as assistants, to men who were also writers and worked part time, interviewing scientists intent on government positions. The story reads as though many of the characters were modelled on people Hoff knew, and many of the incidents on things that had happened.

I was reminded of the Strangers and Brothers series of C.P. Snow, and not only because of the mid-century civil service setting. The style is wittier and more acerbic, the protagonist has far more problems with those in authority, and the focus is on the familiar (marriage, sex, moral choices, and censorship laws), and yet there was that same sense of too much detail, and of conversations full of irrelevancies which read as though transcribed from real life. And so it was interesting to read that Hoff worked as C.P. Snow's assistant, and that C.P. Snow was almost certainly the model for Joe's boss, Robert. In the story the two characters believe their respective books to be very different, but the similarity in style seems unmissable.

Robert is also recently married, but his wife Annette seems less inclined to fall in with her husband's wishes. She has completed a D.Phil., but it is not ambition which motivates her choices, as much as a sense of what she believes to be morally appropriate.This includes working as a teacher in a council school in the East End, and living in a small house without servants. Joe is critical of Annette's independence, observing that such choices are evidence of too much self regard, and that they come with a cost which must be borne by others, in this case by her husband. They may be valid observations, but I note that they only operate in one direction. What is missing is the recognition that Robert's desire for a house-bound wife also imposes a cost upon her. Robert and Joe's shared view of what is normal and appropriate seems conditioned on their own interests.

Joe eventually marries Elspeth, and finds himself a very contented husband. Perhaps I would have enjoyed his story more if I had read the two earlier instalments, Scenes from Provincial Life (Penguin no. 1527), and Scenes from Metropolitan Life (published out of sequence because of a threatened lawsuit). Harry Hoff was clearly a shrewd observer of motivations of others, though with a few odd ideas, but I think he was a little blind to the constraints in his own thinking. I found Scenes from Married Life interesting only in that it was a record of the values, prejudices, and concerns of a man like the author in the middle of the 20th Century, and so provides a basis for measuring just how much attitudes have changed.

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes. The emotional virginity of young men. Some of them never let go of it, sadly. I had not heard of this book. Enjoyed your review.



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