A Good First Marriage is Luck | Sheila Heti & Phyllis Rose | Granta

A Good First Marriage is Luck

Sheila Heti & Phyllis Rose

Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose was first published in 1983. Charting the lives of a group of famous Victorians, the biography stood apart from other books of its kind. Rose told the story of five relationships, following Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, and finally George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, at various points in their marriages. The accolades, achievements and artistry of these figures are well known, but what Rose chose to do, which was less common and far riskier, was to take seriously the romantic events underpinning their lives. In her prologue, Rose wrote that ‘gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the platonic ladder which leads to self-understanding’, and her writing argued that romance – the crushes, companionship and heartbreaks that inform a life – is of equal, if not greater importance, than a person’s career.

Parallel Lives has remained in print in the US for the last forty years, but temporarily fell out of circulation in the UK. It was reissued in 2020 by Daunt Books and the new edition featured an introduction by Sheila Heti.

 

Sheila Heti:

I love Parallel Lives. I read it first in my early twenties, on the cusp of my marriage to another writer – a marriage which only lasted a few years. It’s so different to reread it now, in my mid-forties. It’s a much sadder book than I originally felt it to be. The situations we get ourselves into, the effect of the world’s expectations
on us . . .

I was hoping to ask you some questions about the book’s creation, and yourself at the time you wrote it. To start, I’m wondering about the state of literary criticism and biographical writing, especially about the Victorians, and especially about unwritten women’s lives, at the time you were conceiving this book.

 

Phyllis Rose:

During that first wave of seventies feminism, merely telling women’s stories was a political act, and deeply refreshing. All information about women was a gift. This was the moment of great excitement about the diaries of Anaïs Nin, for example. And then Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary – such a pitiful sample of her whole diary, but so important when it was all that we had. So few autobiographical texts by women existed that it’s hard to imagine now, when there are so many available.

Everybody (that is, every bookish little girl) had read Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Its very title was liberating: a daughter’s duties merited being put up to the light and examined? There was also Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and Anne Frank’s diary and not much more. The same was true for biography. There was so little that every biography of a woman to appear caused great excitement. R.W.B. Lewis’s biography of Edith Wharton was a landmark.

It quickly became clear that the biographies of women by men, however well done, did not hit the particular nail on the head women wanted to have hit. This had personal meaning for me because I had recently finished a biography of Virginia Woolf (published 1979) and I knew that Quentin Bell’s biography was due to be published before my own book, Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. I was convinced he would say all the things I had to say – how important it was that she was a woman, how important her feminism was to all of her work. But he didn’t! It was a great biography, never surpassed in many ways, but it presented Woolf as a neurasthenic problem child. She was about to become the great feminist heroine of the 1980s, but Quentin Bell did not respond to that side of her at all. It was an important lesson, because I thought his book was a model of thoroughness and dedication.

Later, books about women’s lives started coming out: Brenda Maddox’s Nora, Stacy Schiff ’s Vera, biographies of Thackeray’s daughter, Frida Kahlo, Willa Cather. I reviewed as many as I could, and you can find them in a little book Wesleyan University Press published called Writing of Women, which I gave the subtitle ‘Essays in a Renaissance’, because I thought there was a renaissance of writing about women. I also wrote about this (the flowering of women’s autobiographical writing) in the introduction to The Norton Book of Women’s Lives.

 

Heti:

Were there specific books that influenced your writing of Parallel Lives? Besides the Quentin Bell, any models or anti-models; books you thought were well or badly done, or that yours was a reaction to?

 

Rose:

Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was crucial to my understanding of how to use biographical narratives to make a general point. However, I also felt I needed to articulate some of those points and I am naturally averse to abstraction. So I made myself study Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism to learn to get comfortable in the realm of generalizing. I couldn’t have written the preface without it! I would also mention Diane Johnson’s The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives (about Mary Ellen Peacock, the wife of George Meredith), which pointed out that there was always someone else in the room besides The Famous Writer, someone who felt as intensely as The Great One but whose feelings tended not to be noticed or recorded.

Diane Johnson’s work had a huge impact on my approach to biography – providing a model of biography with a feminist underpinning that was not didactic or ideological. The power is in the choice of subject, the camera angle.

As for the final structure of the book there was some arbitrariness and a certain amount of weariness, because my intention had been to write about six marriages. I had planned to include the Darwins, but I left them for last, and by the time I got to them, I just couldn’t do any more. To some extent, the research and writing of the first five marriages had been like researching and writing five individual books. I just ran out of energy. It’s a shame, in a way, because the Darwins’ marriage would have been the only ‘happy’ or conventionally successful marriage, a marriage with children and a strong family life.

 

Heti:

What was the reception toward the book when it first came out? Was it what you expected it to be? Did people seem to understand what you were doing?

 

Rose:

I expected nothing. I still don’t. I am always surprised to find that some people actually read what I write, which has made for some awkward moments.

Parallel Lives received a tremendously enthusiastic review from Anatole Broyard in the daily New York Times (‘brilliant and original’), the kind of review that makes a career, but after that the book didn’t get much media attention. A Victorian literature specialist wrote a negative review for the New York Times Book Review (nothing new in it about the Victorians, she said), and Gertrude Himmelfarb, a conservative, wrote a negative review for the New Republic which I loved because it read the book as having political heft. I had little sense that the book was having any impact until twenty-five years went by and it was still in print, still being discussed in book groups, still being assigned by therapists to their patients.

In one particularly painful moment, I got a personal letter from a professor with whom I had studied nineteenth-century British literature when I was, briefly, at Yale as a graduate student. I had sent him a copy of the book, and he wrote back asking if I really expected him to like this anti-Victorian, anti-marriage, and anti-male piece of work. I didn’t think it was anti-Victorian or anti-marriage or anti-male, and the anger it had stirred in my former professor stunned me and upset me.

As I talked about Parallel Lives to various audiences, I found it most gratifying when people came to me afterwards and confided personal equivalences. For example: ‘The president of the insurance company I work for behaved to his wife just like Dickens did’ or ‘My husband’s cousin is just like Ruskin. He was shocked by his wife’s body.’ When I read the first chapter, ‘The Carlyles’ Courtship’, at colleges and universities, male professors sometimes took the story quite personally and unkindly. None of us then knew the term ‘grooming’, but they seemed to feel I was pointing a finger.

My least favorite reaction was someone telling me they used to like Dickens, but now that they knew how he treated his wife they would never read him again. That was not at all what I wanted the book to do.

I wanted the book to expand sympathies and possibilities. But some people read it as making new demands. A French feminist friend turned on me for not living up to the ideals of my own book when I married for the second time. How could I marry an older man? she asked. He was preying on my youth! It was the oldest plot in the world. And my book had suggested we should live new plots.

 

Heti:

It is so interesting to hear how books were received in the time of their publication, versus the life they continue to have. Just two weeks ago a friend of mine was over and I told him I had written an introduction to your book and he almost fell to the floor. He spoke passionately about how much he admired you and how important your book had been for him and his boyfriend. I know it has many admirers.

Have you seen any changes in society, within the relationships of the people around you, or in how women are more or less or the same degree of free or unfree, since you wrote Parallel Lives? I always wonder if things get better or worse for women, or if they get neither better nor worse but just change shape?

 

Rose:

Are things better or worse for women? For middle-class women, definitely better. We still have not had a female president of the United States, but we have had female Supreme Court justices and secretaries of state, which was almost unimaginable when I was writing Parallel Lives. Women in any position of power were hard to imagine then, even in universities. As an undergraduate at Harvard, I only saw one woman give a lecture, and only once. At my own university, Wesleyan, women on the faculty were such a novelty (I was the fourth hired) that when my son was born, there was no maternity policy. Women with careers were still entering marriage with the expectation that their careers took second place to their husbands’. This may still be the case but is not the rule. I’ve seen much more flexibility about duties within the family – men more willing to take on childcare, for example. Gay couples being able to adopt children is a magnificent advance, also unimaginable until suddenly it was possible.

Parallel Lives came out when I was forty-two. I was more fastidious then than I am now at eighty. Having been a pampered, successful child, I was shocked by the realities of adult life, but I didn’t think it appropriate to express that shock directly. I believed in Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement: ‘Criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography.’ So Parallel Lives was my way of writing about my own experience of marriage and my observations of my friends’ marriages.

The image that I use somewhere in Parallel Lives is that when you’re playing tennis, you don’t know that the wind is blowing until it’s blowing against you. When it’s blowing with you, you just think, Oh, I’m really good at this, and that’s the way patriarchy works. What you discover as a young woman, when you encounter patriarchy in whatever form, is that there is a wind blowing and it’s blowing against you.

At college, preparing for a thankfully unrealized life as a physician, I took Introductory Chemistry, and my section man (graduate assistant) told me after the final exam that I had done better than anyone else in the section. I said, ‘Does that mean I get a straight A for the course?’ He said, ‘No. I can only give one A and Kent needs it more than you do.’ This was a mystery to me for over ten years. Why did Kent, who happened to come from one of America’s most distinguished families, need it more than me? It made no sense to me. Then I got older, then I got married, and this kind of thing happened more often, and feminism helped explain things. He needed the A because his life counted and mine did not.

My main guide to patriarchy was British literature, in which by 1964 I was getting a PhD. I wanted to write my doctoral thesis on Dorothy Wordsworth, but my then-husband, who was also getting a PhD in English literature and was much cannier than me, said that she was not an important enough subject to get me a good job. I then proposed Charles Lamb. Ditto. So I said, ‘How about Dickens? Is he major enough?’ and so I wrote about ‘The Domestic Ideal in Dickens’ Novels’, which was the raw material of Parallel Lives, Parallel Lives turned inside out, or Parallel Lives without an idea in its head. That was 1966–8. The ‘idea’ part didn’t come until feminism gathered force, in the 1970s. Fortunately, I did not try to publish my PhD thesis and wrote that book about Virginia Woolf instead. By then, the late seventies, I was ready to write about marriage, drawing on what I knew about Victorian literature and nineteenth-century writers’ lives.

 

Heti:

When you say you were more fastidious at forty-two than at eighty, do you mean as a writer or a thinker or in living, and what do you attribute this to? Is it bad, or neither good nor bad, to be less fastidious now than you were then?

 

Rose:

Perhaps I should have said that I was more ‘discreet’ when I was forty-two then, not more fastidious. I mean, I was unlikely when I was younger, for various reasons, to write for the public about my personal life.

I wrote less discreetly, less transformatively, later in life. I came to believe it was a writer’s duty to reveal what other people wouldn’t. To tell everything. And especially to talk about the banalities which make up such a large part of life. In The Year of Reading Proust I was contrasting the way great art dignifies and generalizes life, as in Proust, with the randomness and insignificance of daily life as recorded in diary-style writing. That’s what I thought I was doing. But it didn’t work, that is, nobody else saw that in the book but me.

Is it a good or bad thing to be less discreet now than I used to be? I don’t know. I may have other virtues now and I may be happier, but I couldn’t write Parallel Lives now. I’m proud of the young woman who did.

 

Heti:

I’m wondering if, after completing your research and writing, you felt differently about marriage, women’s and men’s roles, and the possibilities for our lives. Or did the writing and research result more in a confirmation of intuitions or inklings you had before you began this book?

 

Rose:

The latter. I had intuitions and they were confirmed by the narratives I saw in the material I worked with. I would say that with time I find myself more and more a fan of marriage, for all its pitfalls and difficulties, and I think that the popularity of same-sex marriage proves my point about new plots better than anything I could have managed in my own small life.

 

Heti:

Why are you more and more a fan of marriage? Is it because you find yourself in a happier one now? In which case, do you see that as a matter of luck – the luck of a good match – or something about growing up and maturing?

As I mentioned, I was married for a few years in my twenties, and now I am with a different man who I have been with for more than a decade, and though I have no desire to ever legally marry again, I feel more married in this relationship than I did in my actual marriage, in the sense of sincere commitment, and a feeling of my fate being bound up with his. When I was married, for reasons that are multiple and hard to explain (and at least partly that he was a writer and editor), I found it hard to have an independent intellectual life, to the extent that I wanted and needed to. With my current boyfriend – maybe because he’s a criminal defense lawyer, maybe because of the way our personalities fit – I’m able to feel alone in my head; I can more easily maintain the richness of my inner life.

Speaking of new plots, I wonder if you’ve ever read the marriage therapist Esther Perel, who is brilliant. I was recently listening to a podcast of hers and it intersected so well with your book: it was about a married couple who divorced, but after their divorce they continued their relationship. Esther Perel deemed them ‘still married, and just divorced enough’. They became happy as a couple only after they divorced because they both allowed each other separate freedoms. It was the word ‘marriage’ that had somehow prevented them from giving each other this, and from living a ‘new narrative’.

 

Rose:

I know exactly what you mean when you say your ex-husband was a writer and editor and your current partner is not, and that this works much better, allowing you space. After my first marriage, I was never again attracted to literary or even especially intellectual men. I went for visual artists. I wanted my literary and intellectual life to be my own. I think it’s important that you note the difference in occupation. Ambitious, intelligent young women tend to overvalue a mate who does the same work, but it’s more likely a liability. A contemporary version of Dorothea Brooke and Mr Casaubon.

A good first marriage is luck. A good second marriage should not be. The overall tone of Parallel Lives, its attitude toward marriage, derives from my own experience as a young woman discovering that the person I thought was autonomous, me, once I got married, no longer was. I was part of a couple. That is a brutal transition in life. I was too inexperienced to know at that age what kind of person would satisfy my emotional needs over the long haul. I hoped then and still hope that Parallel Lives might help other people make this transition, with a greater understanding of the dynamics of couples.

With time I have gotten more comfortable being part of a couple, especially now that I have lived for many years in a happy marriage. Being with someone who gives you room and lets you be yourself is the key, as you say. I was forty-two when I met Laurent. I was extremely resistant to getting married again, but it was evident from soon after he came to the US from France to live with me that it was working very well for both of us. Being old-fashioned and French, he just naturally assumed we would get married when we could. I don’t think he ever even asked me! And it was just as well. I would have had to think about it. People, maybe all biological organisms, seem to work better when they have some stability and expectations for the future. That’s part of what I mean by more and more a fan of marriage. Life is so difficult. It may take more than one creature to sustain one life. Even a cat helps. Certainly a dog.

Couples like the Carlyles who lived together for so many years, people who made each other, in some ways, so miserable, were nonetheless really and truly married – that is, they became something different together and the connection enabled them each to be even more themselves. I would say now that the terms ‘happy marriage’ and ‘successful marriage’ signal different expectations, and ‘successful’ is the more useful word.

When same-sex marriage was first legalized, I was astonished by how many gay men and women took advantage of it. I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about it at first, thinking marriage as an institution had so many problems, why spread it? But the answer is in the outcome. People seem to want to marry.

 

Heti:

It seems to me that one of the great virtues of your book is that you do not generalize, but think about each person, each marriage, as its own creature; it makes your book a very true portrait of life. We aren’t examples of each other, or we shouldn’t have to be. This gives Parallel Lives a very novelistic feel: you’re interested in character for its own sake, not to prove some resounding thesis.

 

Rose:

Absolutely true and just what I hoped for. I wanted to let the story seem to tell itself, rather than beating readers over the head with points, which I think adds to the ‘novelistic feel’. I went to great pains to achieve this effect, although what I saw as artfulness, haut academia sometimes saw as ‘just narrative’, ‘under-theorized’.

 

Heti:

How long did it take you to write the book?

 

Rose:

I’d say about six years, if you don’t count the time I spent writing about Dickens for my PhD thesis. For the most part, I could only work on it in the summer and during semester breaks, as I was teaching full-time and a single parent. I could write in the summer and during holidays because my ex-husband took my son for those times.

The first chapter I wrote was the Carlyles’ Courtship. The story came to me in the voice of Jane Austen. (My initial, very complicated idea, undoable, was that each chapter would be written in the style of an appropriate writer. Jane Austen was appropriate for Jane Welsh, for example.) The next was the Ruskins. I don’t know if it’s obvious, but I wanted each chapter to focus on a different chronological stage of marriage. The Ruskins were my newlyweds. Dickens was what used to be called seven-year itch and at that time was called a mid-life crisis. This structure broke down with George Eliot and John Stuart Mill, though it’s there vestigially, and, like all structures, its importance is more for the writer than the reader.

Each chapter was like a separate book in terms of research. Although the letters I based the book on were published, and I didn’t have to go to archives, it was a huge amount of research nonetheless. For the George Eliot letters, I tried to use a researcher, but it didn’t work. Only I knew what phrase or detail would be useful to me. I read all the letters myself and copied out by hand passages I wanted to quote. Pre-computer. I still think it’s the best way to understand another writer.

The most fun – and the biggest challenge – was to write about Catherine Dickens, because the least was known about her. I had to create facts – by which I don’t mean make things up but see in what was known that certain things deserved the status of ‘fact’. The fact that Catherine was a plucky traveling companion for Dickens when he went to America. The fact that she was appreciated in America for her unassuming manners and easiness to please. Reconstructing the jolly home life of the Dickens family in the early years also was a great pleasure, like hunting for Easter eggs.

The preface was written after a few narrative chapters were written. As I told you before, I knew there had to be a more general statement and it didn’t come naturally to me. So that was a lot of work and very slow going.

It was a huge benefit to me that I was writing this book while teaching at first-rate universities. I do not say this just to be pleasant: I had the benefit of minds much stronger in many ways and certainly more specialized than mine, both at Wesleyan and at UC Berkeley, and for every chapter I had my dear friend Annie Dillard, a master stylist and brilliant editor. She lived around the corner from me in Middletown. I sort of based George Eliot on her.

This is really what I meant when I said ‘I couldn’t do it now’. Not just that I’m old and unambitious but that I don’t have those amazing intellectual communities supporting me and criticizing my work.

Coming to the ending of the book was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. I felt I was putting in the last pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Everything fitted together perfectly. Governor Eyre and Ruskin! Carlyle’s remorse!

 

Heti:

I love what you say about the importance of other brilliant people supporting your work. That is very much the case for me, too. It would be impossible for me to write without the feedback and support of good friends.

I was thinking, if you were both forty-two when you wrote the book and when you met Laurent, what does that mean? Did you meet your second husband in the midst of writing this book, meaning everything happened simultaneously – the disappointment of your first marriage, the writing of this book, and meeting a new man – so that writing the book was a way of unraveling all these thoughts and feelings you were undergoing? Or did you write and finish the book and feel transformed by the experience, and only then find yourself stepping into this second, new life?

 

Rose:

I was born in the fall of 1942. Parallel Lives was published in the fall of 1983. So I was actually forty-one when I wrote it. I met my husband in April of 1985, halfway to turning forty-three. I had already published Parallel Lives when I met Laurent. I was researching Josephine Baker for Jazz Cleopatra, my Paris time funded by Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships I won thanks to Parallel Lives. I definitely did not have marriage on my mind.

 

Heti:

Part of the real power of your book is the sense we get of a writer sublimating writing and thinking about her own marriage into writing and thinking about the marriages of others. Now we are awash in women writing directly about their own lives, a mode which can become a little flat. Do you think something is lost in the contemporary resistance to sublimate – to think about our own lives through thinking about other lives? This came up for me as I was concluding the first draft of my introduction: that there is something to learn in your book about the depth we can get to when we write about our own life through the lens of other lives, as opposed to writing about our own lives directly.

 

Rose:

Thank you. That’s very generous. But I would like to turn the question back, rhetorically, to the author of those wonderful books, How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood. Don’t you think that all literature involves sublimation of some sort or other? What you bring to a book from your own life does not make or break it. What matters is your art – sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter. Terms like auto-fiction may stir up interest in critics and readers, but writers will write what suits their talents and needs of the moment regardless. Proust was writing auto-fiction. Thank goodness he didn’t wait for the term to be invented. I personally don’t care where the material for a book comes from, so long as I enjoy the experience of reading it. I read fiction and non-fiction with equal pleasure. Even the terms ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ seem at times artificial. Norman Mailer signaled this many, many years ago when he gave the subtitle ‘A Novel’ to The Executioner’s Song, his biography of Gary Gilmore, a murderer. The non-fictionalization of fiction goes back at least that far, to the era of ‘the new journalism’, another formulation which probably served some purpose in its time, like auto-fiction.

But I feel I am avoiding the direct thrust of your question: is something lost or gained by sticking with the personal, resisting sublimation as you put it. You do gain great power by rising above the personal. One of the most abused battle cries of my generation was ‘The personal is political’. This has led to an ocean of banalities in public life – politics and journalism both – so that it seems every speech, every investigative article, must begin with a personal narrative. The personal is political only if you are a good enough writer or a good enough politician to make it so. If you want to know just how boring the personal can be, hang out with old people. It is one of the great tragedies of aging that just as every detail of every experience you’ve had in your life becomes precious to you, you have probably lost the ability to make it interesting to anyone else not assigned you as a school research project. You are desperate to tell your story, but your story, to your listeners, is ‘the past’, a place in which they have only polite interest or which they will mine for their own art. And that is how it should be.

 

Heti:

I guess my final question is about the importance of legal marriage, or a wedding ceremony, in thinking about the couples you write about. In marrying a second time, you seem to be suggesting that there is something transformative or essential for you about the act of marriage. Is it categorically different for you – the long, committed relationship in which one never actually performs the marriage vows, and the couple which has formally wed? Can these two types of relationships be thought of together, as basically the same thing, or not?

 

Rose:

I know couples not legally married who could not be more solidly united as a couple for life. Some have children together, property together, in-laws together. It is certainly possible. When I was in France in the 1980s, it seemed quite routine for the Paris intelligentsia. French law may not privilege marriage. I don’t know. But that is certainly not true of the United States now. Here, there is definitely a difference between legal marriages and unions not supported by the state. For one thing, maybe the main thing, the difficulty of divorcing makes couples more willing to ride out difficulties. To say nothing of the tax, insurance and loan benefits, medical, visiting and representation rights, and other kinds of protection for spouses, including the widowed.

Where the law is not actively on your side in marriage, legal marriage makes less difference, as is the case for undocumented people in the United States now. And it was the case, in a different way, for some of the women I write about in Parallel Lives. At that time, in Britain, women were legally disadvantaged by marrying. They gave up all rights to their husbands. They lost all their property upon marriage and could even lose their children. Powerful, clear-minded women like George Eliot and Harriet Taylor understood that they could work around legal marriage to their own benefit. Still, both got legally married as soon as they could, probably for reasons of social acceptance and status, rather than legal advantage.

As for me, I had a hippie boyfriend for many years. ‘We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tried and true.’ Joni Mitchell’s song, right? That was his anthem. But it wasn’t true for Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash, and it wasn’t true for me and my hippie. He always said, ‘What’s the point?’ when I conventionally suggested we ought to be married, and so it was relatively easy to leave a relationship which, however wonderful for a time, would surely have ended in divorce if we had married and tried to stay together for the long haul.

One more thing I’d like to say on this question. Life expectancy was so much lower in the nineteenth century than it is today that, to some extent, death functioned as divorce does now, allowing more than one marriage in a lifetime. A long marriage is a work of art. Relationships get deeper the longer they last. But multiple marriages, whether legal or not, have their own art and depth. I would also suggest that even in a long marriage, especially in a long marriage, it can seem like you are married sequentially to more than one person.

 

Heti:

That is a beautiful insight, thank you, Phyllis.

 

Rose:

Thank you so much, Sheila. Between us, something else was just occurring to me. Here again, the difference in our ages comes into play. At a certain point, legality is no longer the issue. Neither is love. I no longer wear my wedding ring, to signal something not to others (that I’m available) but to myself (that my husband is gone, even if I’m the only one who knows it). At ninety-eight, he is just not the man I married when he was in his sixties. He has dementia and is more a remnant than a person. Still, I am morally and practically responsible for him. We’ve transcended the legal and the emotional and reached a level of pure commitment. It’s true for him, too. I am the only person who exists in his world. I am certain there are many other elderly people in similar situations, mostly with the women having to take care of the men. I don’t know how the saintly people we see in movies and read about in memoirs do it!

 

Heti:

That seems incredibly hard. I think this stage of marriage is very hidden from younger people. I’m sure most of the women (and men) who are in the same position as you also suffer in the way you do – I’m sure none of them are saints! But as you put it, it’s a state of ‘pure commitment’, you can’t really make the choice to leave. So, like women who find themselves unhappy at having chosen to be mothers, the only thing to do is to keep it to yourself. It seems too unloving, too selfish, to speak about it. And yet, it must be a hugely, widely shared experience. Thank you for telling me about your life right now. It’s a continuation of the insight and honesty of your book, which has been so important to me and so many people; which has been such a teacher. I never before saw my experience as one that was so privileged. In a serious long-term relationship, you feel so psychically and morally and spiritually committed, but at my age, with my partner and I both in good health, there nevertheless remains a quality of freedom and choice that I had not quite appreciated until you described your situation to me now.

 

Rose:

Thank you. I said earlier in our exchange that writers have a duty to say what other people won’t. And at my age, I want all the more to pass on what I’ve experienced, though I fear I no longer have the skill or energy to do it.

 

Artwork © Susan Taylor, Protecting The Crab, 2019

Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti is the author of elevenbooks, including the novels How Should a Person Be?Motherhood and Pure Colour. Fitzcarraldo published her new book, Alphabetical Diaries, in February 2024.

Photograph © Steph Martyniuk

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Phyllis Rose

Phyllis Rose is the author of the biographies of Virginia Woolf, Josephine Baker and Alfred Stieglitz, as well as the classic biographical work Parallel Lives and the bibliomemoirs The Year of Reading Proust and The Shelf.

Photograph © Sigrid Estrada

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