This book inspired a lot of interesting thought.
It's a recounting of a famous unsolved murder case that took place in the late 1800's. The circumstances of the death are complex and bizarre, the surrounding events are titillating, and the wealth of evidence accumulated over the last 140 years provides a great playground for armchair detectives and gawkers like myself. James Ruddick approaches the material as an investigative reporter, and as you follow along you can almost see the Ken Burns slow-camera-pan over old photographs and documents, and the darkly-lit amateur theatre reenactment with a bunch of no-name actors in period costume, skulking around with suspicious expressions, all intercut with modern-day shots of unrecognizable buildings, roads, and signs. All that's missing are commercial breaks, but you can put the book down and create a few yourself to complete the BBC experience if you like.
The murder itself was not what made the book especially thought-provoking for me, though. It was the fact that the setting is late Victorian society, and the author goes to a lot of trouble framing the details of the case in their appropriate cultural context. This was a society in which women were essentially slaves, groomed from birth as chattel to secure financial and social connections between patriarchal family empires. Powerless before marriage, and equally powerless within it, a Victorian wife was not even allowed to assert a distinction between consenting sex and outright rape at the hands of her husband. Wealth and power were central; happiness was an irrelevant afterthought.
The legacy of Victorian culture has lingered, and I don't have to look very hard to see its eerie tentacles woven into every corner of even my own famously progressive liberal American environment. In this modern age, marriage is primarily about happiness. If your husband or wife is sabotaging it, you separate, and you try again. Even if children are involved, it is becoming accepted wisdom that an unhappy couple would be better off making separate households, and splitting the children between them. The law provides a way to make this happen even in cases where a separation creates a financial imbalance. This is almost the polar opposite of Victorian conduct, and yet, that conduct is still here - or something closely related, anyway - because our legal system is progressive, but human nature is stubborn.
Consider a few general observations about romance and dating:
- A woman who has children, and then divorces, is going to have FAR more trouble finding a second husband than a divorced woman with no children, and more trouble than a man in either position.
- A woman moving into her 30's will have much more trouble finding a husband than a man moving into his 30's will have finding a wife.
- Men and women who acquire high wealth and status generally limit their dating pool to people of equal or higher wealth and status.
- Additionally, men who acquire high wealth and status will more often exploit it to become philanderers.
I believe these observations apply for modern society, but taken together they are also something else: A blueprint one could use to construct Victorian codes of conduct from the ground up, the very practices we claim to have "progressed" so far beyond and left behind. This is interesting to me because in my time as a bachelor, moving through my 30's, I have seen these blueprints alive and breathing in the minds of some of the women I've dated, as well as in my own.
I've become very self-sufficient, and so have most of the women I've dated. Not just financially or socially, but emotionally as well. That changes a lot of things. When you have your own life happily established - whether by choice, or by force after finding yourself adrift for a time - your primary concern changes from whether a given suitor will help you pursue happiness, to whether a given suitor will interfere too much with the happiness you have already learned how to pursue. Your career, your social life, your way of running a household, your idea of a kickass vacation; you know what these things can be already, and you probably have most of them in place. And just as important, you know that any romantic entanglement demands compromise. That makes you a lot more choosy. You want someone who brings their own happiness to the table, so you can trade in it equally.
I've come to realize that I have a very feminine approach to romance, and I've even become choosy in a feminine way. I've become drawn to women with careers, with a handle on their own finances, with aggressive, assertive behaviors, sexual experience, high energy, short haircuts, sturdy limbs. Women who debate, and challenge, and belch and play in the mud and tell jokes, but who also have a strong affection for children and a home. All these things mix together and become an emotion, a feeling of interest and excitement, a desire to connect. The core of romantic desire. But again, there is a Victorian shadow around all of this. As I read Death At The Priory, I realized that my criteria were more-or-less the same criteria that the widow Florence Ricardo had settled on, after the disastrous seven-year ordeal of her first marriage, and after achieving financial independence and comfort. After 140 years and across a cultural and literal ocean, we were going about the same search, for the same reasons. What to make of that?
Florence's outcome was not good: She dated a rakish, exciting young man named Charles Bravo, then began to distance herself from him when he became predatory, only to get snared in a marriage when they got pregnant out of wedlock. His aggressive behavior turned to violence and he began to systematically deprive her of all power and control, and since this wasn't her first rodeo, she fought back, and the consequences were horrifying. Society and family conspired to keep her trapped in the marriage, and after her husband's death, she was crushed. She moved to a small house on the coast, became a hermit, and drank herself into her grave at the age of 28.
One thing that's striking to me about her history is her courtship with Charles Bravo. She was clearly hesitant about being married again, and was eventually able to ferret out specific reasons why Charles was not a good match. It's clear she would have rejected him in due time, before pregnancy forced her hand. The question I have is: Why Charles Bravo in the first place? Her first marriage had just been bad luck, and she clearly didn't want to repeat history. Instead she went from bad to worse.
I have an insidious suspicion. I suspect she was deliberately choosing a relationship with a man she would ultimately find incompatible, because she did not actually want to be married at all. Society was compelling her to search, but her instincts were sabotaging that search at the same time.
This translates to a question for myself: Am I somehow my own worst enemy in my attractions? Has my own desire to avoid repeating history somehow become an engine for it? Which is more important - a hesitation I feel after 15 minutes, or one I feel after 15 weeks? What if the key to avoiding the latter is to ignore the former?
What if I set the criteria as: Someone who doesn't care about a career, may not necessarily have complete financial independence, isn't particularly aggressive, doesn't care much for debate, grows her hair long, and avoids the mud? Sure, I suppose someone like that would be easier to stick with in most ways. But something tells me that I would not be happy. In fact, those criteria sound like a recipe for guaranteed disaster, and it wouldn't even be a fun courtship in the meantime.
I guess there just isn't any escape from experience. I can only choose the people I'll be happy with long-term from the pool of people that I am also happy with short-term, and if those groups are mutually exclusive, there isn't much I can do. Happiness in all things is not guaranteed. Florence Ricardo destroyed herself in the pursuit of it. If happiness as a perennial bachelor is my lot, with my overdeveloped and suspiciously gender-reversed Victorian instincts, so be it. It's not a bad outcome.
(I get to stay up as late as I want writing introspective journal entries, for example!)