So the subject of how marriage is portrayed came up in conversation with a friend recently. And it made me curious—there are plenty of literary depictions of courtship and romance of course. But if you are a married woman looking for literary role models as you settle into your vocation of loving your husband and raising your children then even Jane Austen isn’t really going to help much. If you grew up in a broken home, if you’re the child of divorce how do you even begin to form a mental picture of what a healthy marriage looks like? If your head is full of all that romance and you still find yourself thinking that married love means being swept off your feet and wine and chocolate and flowers, where do you turn to learn the sacrificial nature of mature married love? How do you stop making yourself miserable by comparing your life to the lives of your favorite literary heroines? Perhaps look for new heroines?
But where are all the married couples in literature? I was kind of surprised that I was having such a hard time thinking of any. So I did what any self-respecting social media savvy geek does: I crowd sourced to Facebook and asked my friends to think of some for me.
So we started brainstorming lists on Facebook, but now I want to try to think about what I’ve learned (and maybe get some more ideas from my wonderful blog readers who aren’t on Facebook. (Warning: I do try to limit my circles on Facebook to keep them manageable. I tend only to add people I know in real life or with whom I’ve had long term or intensive interactions with on blogs and email. I don’t add people whose names I don’t recognize or who seem familiar but I don’t know well.)
First, What are the guidelines for this list/ What am I looking for? I don’t at all mean to specify that the relationships must be conflict-free, just mature and healthy. As Erin said, “Mature married love doesn’t have to be free of internal conflict to be an example of a *good* marriage. Mature and healthy conflict resolution can take time and narrative. Unresolved conflict can still coexist with good marriage if the couple has a mature perspective.” So the marriage in question should be one that you might want to look as a role model or inspiration to when you hit those rocky areas of marriage that all marriages hit. I do prefer to focus on marriages with children, partially as a corrective to the contemporary idea of marriage as being about the fulfillment of the spouses and not about the formation of a family. And because lets face it many of the toughest challenges of marriage center around having children, parenting children, finding time to be together in the middle of the chaos that is family life with small children.
So… here’s what I’ve got so far I’ve broken them down into roughly three categories: children’s literature, adult fiction, non-fiction. Note: I have not read all these books, so I can’t personally vouch for them. But they make a good list to reference when looking for something to read….
Mrs Darwin writes:
Here’s the thing about depicting married couples: drama needs conflict—theater 101. And so, when you have a married couple in a book, either the conflict is internal to their marriage, and the book becomes an exploration of that conflict (think Anna Karenina, even though that conflict is not the main drama of the book). or the conflict is external (money, terrorists, illness, aliens, whatevs), in which case the focus is that external conflict. And if the marriage is mature enough to withstand that conflict, than the main focus won’t be on the couple because they themselves are not the source of the drama. That’s why you often have these loving mature couples in children’s lit, because they’re a source of stability in the face of the drama the young hero or heroine is facing.
Here’s the thing with children’s literature: while it’s nice to find all the stable couples in children’s lit, they tend to be told from the children’s point of view and therefore the marriages are idealized, the conflicts within the marriage tend to be minimized if shown at all. So they are often not a very fine portrait of stable married love, but a brief sketch. That’s fine for children, but what a mature, adult woman needs is more than a sketch of a happy marriage in the background of an adventure story.
Still, it can be handy to think on happy marriages and therefore let’s begin with all the lovely married couples hanging out in the background of our favorite children’s novels. The parents who provide the stable, happy homes from which our favorite heroes and heroines go forth adventuring. The children’s book heroines who grow up to become mothers and wives themselves.
1. The later Anne books by L.M. Montgomery after Anne become a mother. I think Anne does become more flat as the storytelling begins to focus on the kids and becomes a more traditional kid lit mom.
2. Ma and Pa Ingalls, And later Laura and Almanzo Wilder. Although I think there are undercurrents of resentment and even some passive aggressive behavior that I don’t think are all that healthy.
3. Arthur & Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter books.
4. Louis May Alcott’s Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men, Jo’s Boys
5. Mr and Mrs Murray in Madeleine L’Engles’ Wrinkle in Time, Swiftly Tilting Planet, A Wind in the Door. And Meg and Calvin in the later books.
6. L’Engle’s Meet the Austins
7. All of a Kind Family;
8. The Princess and the Goblin (Curdie’s parents);
9. Ginger Pye (Hey, I’m currently reading this!)
10. Little House in the Highlands series by Melissa Wiley
11. Little House by Boston Bay series by Melissa Wiley
12. The Yearling
13. Caddie Woodlawn
1. Jack and Cathy Ryan from Tom Clancy’s spy thriller novels.
2. Kristen Lavransdatter. Though theirs isn’t a smooth relationship, marred as it was by their premarital liaison, still there is a seriousness to it and growth. And she dies well and so does he really. And they never give up on their marriage. It really is a beautiful depiction of how immature love can grow and develop.
3. more books by Sigrid Undset; IdaElisabeth
4. Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series
5. Anne Perry’s Charlotte & Thomas Pitt or her Monk mysteries
6. The Cratchit family in A Christmas Carol. I think Dickens portrays family life beautifully, but the young family isn’t really the main focus of the story.
7. The Outlander books. One of the author’s reasons for writing them was that so few books are about what happens AFTER the marriage. And the main characters may have truly histrionic adventures, but they’re married and they love each other, tolerate each other’s foibles, and adapt to each other. The Outlander books are great, but problematic in that the graphic sex, especially the sexual violence turns off a lot of readers. And also Jamie and Claire don’t raise a child or children together. Brie is already an adult when Jamie meets her. So that aspect of married love is lacking in their relationship.But in the later books Gabaldon does develop a portrait of young couple with children in Brianna and Roger.
8. Sam Vimes and Lady Sybil from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, with their young son.
9. John Ames and his wife in Gilead- they have a great tenderness and affection. And a seven-year-old son.
10. David Copperfield (David and Agnes)
11. The Cypresses Believe in God
12. “Life Expectancy” by Dean Koonz, though the child in the book is only young in the early part of the book. It has been a while since I read it, but the emphasis on family importance and the marriage of the main character’s parents was a strong part of the book.
13. Ashley and Melanie in Gone with the Wind.
14. The Time Traveler’s Wife shows a very interesting marriage that is rather convoluted by the whole involuntary time travel and the fact that the characters’ lives intersect at so many varied point on their individual timelines. It really is a fascinating look at what marriage means.
15. a few examples from Trollope:
Mark and Fanney Robarts are the main characters in Framley Parsonage, which deals with the stress put on their marriage by Mark’s ill advised loan to a friend. They have small children, I believe, but they barely come in to the story.
Josiah and Mary Crowley are semi-main characters in The Last Chronicle of Barset, struggling under accusations that Josiah stole a cheque. They have a large number of children ranging from the adult Grace (who is also a major character and whose romance is another plot thread) to fairly young children.
16. There’s a very likable short story by Dorothy Sayers where she has Lord Peter and Harriet married with children. I believe it’s called Talboys.
17. Elzabeth Goudge – Damerosehay series and others (can’t think of titles offhand).
18. F.R.Delderfield – God is an Englishman series (long time since I’ve read it but I’m almost certain the main protagonist has a strong marriage and a large family)
19. C.S. Lewis That Hideous Strength
1. Cheaper By the Dozen
2. My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams
3. A Call to a Deeper Love: The Family Correspondence of the Parents of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus
4. Love Letters to My Husband by St Gianna and Pietro Molla. Sadly, this is out of print. I snagged a copy online.
5. Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage
6. Leon Kass and wife put together a compilation of great literature selections, letters from husbands and wives, etc. called Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar. Excellent reading in courtship, womanliness, manliness, marriage and love. Not much in the way of parenthood besides Levin and Kitty.
7. Magdalena and Balthasar : An Intimate Portrait of Life in 16th Century Europe Revealed in the Letters of a Nuremberg Husband and Wife
9. James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small series. The marriage is not the main focus, but it definitely plays a prominent role.
Film and Television
1. The Incredibles Elasti-Girl is such a great icon of motherhood. And I really do love the way Mr and Mrs Incredible work through their conflicts.
2. UP (Though the couple has no children, I think it’s a beautiful portrayal of the fact that marriage is oriented towards children even when childless. And has beautiful understanding of what parenting is)
3. Parenthood with Steve Martin
4. Cheaper by the Dozen both versions
5. The King’s Speech. The marriage between Bertie and Elizabeth is wonderful.
6. It’s a Wonderful Life
7. The Cosby Show
8. The Simpsons is a paradigm of flawed people that together make functionally healthy family.