Literature, Courtship and Marriage

Literature, Courtship and Marriage

The Duke of Osuna and his Family by Francisco Goya
The Duke of Osuna and his Family by Francisco Goya

Recently I discovered this blog, Love Among the Ruins, dedicated to publishing students’ essays about the intersection of Theology of the Body and culture:

The Theology of the Body, at its deepest point, is intended to provide a fundamental framework for thinking about and interpreting all of reality. The task of your paper is to bring the insights of the Theology of the Body to bear upon some aspect of culture (contemporary culture, pop culture, or “high” culture). You may choose a work of fiction or drama, film, music, or some other form. Your interpretation, at its best, should help to illuminate your subject through the Theology of the Body, as well as the Theology of the Body through that subject.

My attention was drawn by way of a piece on Jane Eyre, “You Shall, Yourself, Pluck Out Your Right Eye”;: Theology of the Body in Jane Eyre”. Now the piece reads like a college essay: good ideas, a little stiff in the execution. Not that I could have done any better at the same age. But its main function was to remind me of a pet project I’ve had on the back burner for a long time now, an idea for a literature course for teens and young adults that would explore theological, moral, cultural and practical aspects of courtship and marriage. Through great works of literature. Not quite the same thing as this TOB culture project, but close enough.

* * *

You know you were born to be a literature teacher when you find yourself compiling syllabi even though you haven’t set foot in a classroom in almost a decade. (Yes, I’m homeschooling, but planning books to read with my family is not the same thing as planning literature classes for teens or young adults.)

Anyway, for a long time now I’ve been keeping a mental book list for a course on marriage in literature with a theological bent. A sort of nebulous idea, teaching about marriage for those who are immediately confronted with having to deal with the possibility of being called to marriage using literature to talk about both practical and theoretical issues of courtship and dating and chastity and all the stuff that comes up any time you are talking with teens and young adults.

I think the idea sort of coagulated when I was reading Kristen Lavransdatter, it occurred to me what a lovely depiction it is of the problems that plague a marriage that begins with the husband and wife having premarital sex together. I wished I had read it when I was younger. And I began to keep track of all the different depictions of marriage I came across.

Or maybe it began when I was teaching Persuasion (was that before or after reading Kristen?) When I was preparing to teach Persuasion, I began by asking my students to think about their own preconceptions about courtship and marriage. We talked a little about the problem of how to choose a spouse. And to me that’s the central drama in Austen, not girl meets boy, but man and woman form a family.

In any case, I started to think about what Austen and Undset and others can teach young people about the interconnectedness of sex and marriage and family.

I think teens are still very concrete in many ways and the theological and moral teaching of the Church can seem abstract and impractical. They need stories to see how these teachings play out or how the lack of these teachings plays out.

So I’ve had a sort of mental list of interesting stories about marriage. Both those that act as models of what to do and those that are clearly examples of what not to do. The problem with my hypothetical class is that there is so much literature about marriage. The real limitation for this class would be fitting in all the books. Though if it’s a homeschooling class, then I suppose I could plan it to stretch over a much longer period of time. Several semesters, even several years, even.

Jane Austen, of course, is a master of writing about marriage. I don’t think most readers pay enough attention to her beautifully drawn minor characters, to all the examples she provides of people who have made foolish choices and then have to live with the deficiencies of the spouse they have chosen.

And then Charlotte Bronte’s masterful Jane Eyre.

And the aforementioned Kristen Lavransdatter. What else?

Shakespeare of course. I have a hard time choosing just one or two. I especially like The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Twelfth Night is a favorite too. Brideshead Revisisted.

Walker Percy? Thanatos Syndrome or Love Among the Ruins? It’s been too long since I read any of them.

Middlemarch, of course.

James Joyce’s The Dead.

The Odyssey.

Chaucer– I think the Canterbury Tales have quite a few tales that look at marriage from different angles.

What else would be on your list? Why?

I’ve started this post and lost it and started it again so many times. I’m not happy with it. It feels choppy and uneven. I wanted to have an actual list, but that doesn’t want to happen. So I’m going to publish and then maybe come back to it later. But let’s chat about what a literature as a formational tool and literature.

Updates Wednesday April 8

Yes, many people have suggested Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar. A friend also bought it for me. It’s in my pile of books to read. But that book while it may be a valuable resource, doesn’t really do what I’m talking about. What I’m thinking of here is whole novels. Excerpts are ok in their place, but there is something vital in reading the entire work if you can, understanding scenes in context, development of characters.

1. A friend and I have been discussing this post on Facebook. Some thoughts from our conversation. She suggested some foundational reading for before the teen years, and I concur with her choices: “we started them early with these series: Anne of Green Gables, Little house, all of Louisa May Alcott. Those set us up for all of Austen. First Pride and Prejudice (read out loud together when the eldest was 12 and the second was 11), then Sense and Sensibility (when the girls had a bit more self knowledge and could see tendencies in themselves in the characters) then Emma. Jane Eyre, Gaskell’s books, as sophomores Anna Karenina. ” Then Kristen Lavransdatter, she said, is up next.

She also suggests that “Poetry is also important in the way Shakespeare acting and memorizing the Baltimore Catechism are: words are provided for ideas that otherwise would remain amorphous in their minds and might just fade away without phrases ready at hand to express them.” I really like that about memorization pinning things down and sticking with you.

2. Other books I’d add to the list:

Dickens. I think David Copperfield maybe and Bleak House? Possibly Great Expectations too.

And what about Till We Have Faces? It’s not really about marriage or courtship, except tangentially, but it’s about self knowledge and touches on the way marriage intersects with our relationships with our families of origin.

And oh Rumer Godden. The Battle of Villa Florita, Peacock Spring, China Court, are all strong possibilities.

3. Also, I found an old post on Kristen Lavransdatter and the Theology of the Body that I wrote ages ago and that I think holds up pretty well.

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  • North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, and probably Wives and Daughters. Yes, the love stories are compelling and just lovely, but it’s all within a framework of older adults who have had varying degrees of success in their marriages, and very dependent on whether the love is self-giving and sacrificial, or socially the thing to do, or just affection, or a combination of those things.

  • What about Till We Have Faces? It’s not really about marriage or courtship, except tangentially, but it’s about self knowledge and touches on the way marriage intersects with our relationships with our families of origin.

      • How nice to get books that way. Another source you might like perusing is the Well-Read Mom bookclub. I am starting a group locally, and we start next week, and this year’s theme is “The Year of the Spouse” with all of the books following that theme. I am currently reading Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, and if ever there was a beautiful book about courtship and marriage, this is one. Just lovely.

        Past years themes were The Year of the Daughter and The Year of the Mother, and naturally, I think some of the themes would really overlap, especially since many of the titles from those years overlap with your ideas. Those lists aren’t straightforward to access if you aren’t registered, though you might like to register even if you don’t start a club just for access to the booklet of discussion questions and the audio intros and lectures that are part of the program. Also, if you google “well-read mom year of the daughter” and “well-read mom year of the mother” you get access to old pages that have the lists you could peruse.

        • I reread my post, and I feel compelled to apologize that it is not well written. I am currently drinking my coffee, and it obviously hasn’t taken effect yet.

          • Oh don’t apologize. I didn’t notice any errors. And half my posts and comments are written too late at night.

            That does sound like a very interesting book club. I would love to check it out. Thank you for recommending it.

  • Hello –
    A nonfiction selection on the endlessly fascinating topic of marriage that comes to mind is, “The Diary of Elisabeth Leseur.” There’s a Catholic story if ever there was one.
    Also really love Sheldon Van Aucken’s book, “A Severe Mercy,” as well as C.S. Lewis’s “Surprised by Joy.”
    Don’t know why this keeps popping into my head, but perhaps a “fairy tale” added to the mix, for a touch of fun and whimsy (which a good marriage must always include), might be watching (parts of?) the film, The Princess Bride.
    There’s so much in it…for instance, the meaning of Wesley’s (Carey Elwes, who is a Catholic, too) oft-used phrase, “As you wish…” and I could go on, but of course you get the picture

    • Oh yeah. Elisabeth Leseur has been on my TBR list for a while now. I think I have it on Kindle, but keep forgetting about the Kindle.

      I do love A Severe Mercy and Surprised by Joy. Both such good books.

  • Love the sound of your course, Melanie. Would love to have taken it myself as a teen!

    Le Morte Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory was the most significant book of my year when I was 19. Three nobly minded people who love each other, their faith and the vision of a better society and yet how this can be unravelled disastrously when one of the loves gets out of order. I also loved Once and Future King.
    Vanity Fair by Thackeray. It helps to have books which play out a whole life to help us identify the true hero -Dobbin- from the beautiful, personality-plus, popular people in our lives. I also liked its reference to The Pilgrim’s Progress which was so important to the March girls.
    Middlemarch as you have included, and Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles and the Palliser novels which I read once inspired George Eliot to write MM. I have recently discovered Joanna Trollope, a distant relation of Anthony; she writes with similar sensitive insight to his (imho) but on the complex issues of family relationships today. Not a Catholic perspective but certainly a moral one.

    • Thanks Stephanie. Oh yes, the Arthurian stuff is really good to ponder. I confess, though, I absolutely hated The Once and Future King when I read it in high school. White always seemed to be moralizing at me instead of just telling me a good tale. But at the time I’d been immersed in Mary Stewart’s retelling and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s and White also felt rather cartoonish in comparison. Though looking back, I’d say his moral vision is definitely superior. I suppose it didn’t help that my first exposure to White’s version was the cartoon The Sword in the Stone. It just felt too childish.

      I loved Vanity Fair when I read it. I need to reread that at some point. A very good addition to the list.

      I haven’t read Anthony Trollope, though I’ve picked him up and put him down again.
      I’ve heard Joanna Trollope’s name. Didn’t realize she was a relation. Do you have a specific title you’d recommend?

      • I have only read Daughters-in-Law, Marrying the Mistress and The Soldier’s Wife which appeared randomly in my local library. I found them all engrossing and insightful. There are other better known ones, and she has recently written a contemporary version of Sense and Sensibility as part of the Austen Project. I’d like to read more but am making myself finish Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bones before I do. Oh my gosh, I would love a Catholic bookclub to discuss it and Wolf Hall. (The roles of luminous hero St Thomas More and evil genius Thomas Cromwell are reversed in Mantel’s imaginative retelling).

        • I did read Wolf Hall, a while back. I didn’t like it much. I’ve been chatting about it a bit on Facebook recently as people are chattering about it now that the television series is going to air.

          The portrait of Thomas More as villain was really unpleasant. I like my historical novels more historical and I think Mantel actually violates an ethical principle when she re-writes history to suit her own desires. Historical novels still have a duty to portray historical figures in a way that does justice to the real person. I thought Mantel let her anti-Catholic agenda lead her to lean on some shoddy revisionist history when it came to both More and Cromwell. It could have been a good story, but ideology got in the way.

    • For me Time Traveler’s Wife would be a marginal choice, mainly whether to include it would depend on the maturity of the student. It could potentially lead to some interesting discussions. But the descriptions of sexual encounters are fairly graphic, if I remember correctly, and not all teens would be ready to handle it. I’m thinking especially if I were to offer this as a homeschooling course for high school students. So maybe on an optional reading list to be added to the list under the discretion of the instructor based on personal knowledge of the student? I could see it. Did you recently blog about Time Traveler’s Wife? I’d love to chat about it with you.

      • +JMJ+

        Ah, you’re right that this novel would be too adult for a homeschool reading list! But I had just finished reading it when I saw this post’s title and it was the first one that jumped to mind.

        I was actually planning to write a post on The Time Traveler’s Wife for Reading for Believers. It will take a few days before I get it up, though.

        • Oh good! Our poor neglected book club blog needs some love. And I really want to hear what you have to say about this one. I do think it would be interesting to read it in the context of this reading list, about marriage and courtship and sex. Especially because Claire is meant to be Catholic. The time travel adds an interesting wrinkle to the ethical situation, doesn’t it?

          • +JMJ+

            The review is up! But as you will see, it was the faith angle rather than the marriage angle that fascinated me the most.

            In the context of marriage, well, I read it as an unmarried woman who is starting to think that she may be an old maid, and what struck me the most was the elusiveness of love, even after two become one flesh. I feel loneliest when something significant or amazing or just plain interesting happens to me and I remember I don’t have a husband to share it with, and I was surprised to find that Clare has the same problem. She has Henry . . . but for slivers and chunks of time that she can’t anticipate, she also doesn’t have Henry. Their marriage is a paradoxical blend of certainty and unreliability that’s both comforting and troubling to me, for the same reason: it hints that what I’m wishing for is just another version of what I currently have.

            Of course, I’m sure that married folk, who outnumber me on Reading for Believers, see Henry and Clare’s marriage differently.

  • Just off the top of my head:
    My Antonia by Willa Cather
    Ida Elizabeth by Sigrid Undset (if you think Kristen Lavrensdatter is agonizing, wait till you read this!)
    Shakespeare – “The Merchant of Venice” & the idiotic duo “Romeo and Juliet”
    The musical, “Fiddler on the Roof”